Investing in the Salton Sea

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Investing in the Salton Sea

Date: 11/16/2023     State: CA     Issues: Climate, Renewable Energy, Watersheds, Wildlife     Partners: Audubon Society, Cactus to Cloud, California Wilderness Coalition, Comite Civico De Valle, Consejo de Federaciones Mexicanas, Mojave Desert Land Trust Airport Origin : Thermal, CA    


In December 2023, the Biden administration announced a $72 million investment to restore the Salton Sea and protect the communities who live near it! Immediate action and restoration funding is a main goal of our overflights and we applaud the administration. We flew with leaders working to restore the Salton Sea, including the Audubon Society, COFEM, CalWild, CactusToCloud, Mojave Desert Land Trust, Comite Civico del Valle, as well as journalists and the Bombay Beach Community Services District.

At one time, the shallow, inland Salton Sea (less than 50 feet at its deepest point) was frequented by celebrities and visitation even rivaled Yosemite National Park. Today, however, toxic metals, pesticides, and other pollutants have accumulated in lakebed sediments and are increasingly becoming a windblown threat as the lake water recedes, with serious negative health impacts for the surrounding Coachella Valley communities and the Torres Martinez Desert Cahuilla Indian Tribe.

The discovery of lithium here sparked new economic optimism, as well as new concerns. Less than 1% of lithium used in the U.S. is produced domestically, and most comes from environmentally-disastrous open-pit operations. Promising (yet unproven) new technologies could allow the Salton Sea’s lithium to be extracted from geothermal brine with supposedly negligible water loss or environmental impact.

Lithium development could also bring millions in taxes and royalties to California. This could have huge benefits for the Coachella Valley’s poorer communities - if distributed equitably. Towards this end, the State has agreed to allocate 20 cents from every dollar in revenue back to local communities, and San Diego State has launched a program to train local students in engineering and other skills in-demand in the lithium industry.

Concerns remain about the impact to air quality and the water budget in the region. Extracting lithium from the brine requires pumping thousands of gallons of water, and locals worry that any unanticipated losses in this untested process could add up.

EcoFlight’s partners at Audubon California are working with the state and local communities to ensure that lithium development in the Salton Sea is done with the utmost attention to environmental impacts, and that Tribes and disadvantaged communities are represented and enjoy equitable benefits. By expanding native wetlands like those at Bombay Beach, which are spring-fed instead of watered by runoff and diversions, wildlife habitat can continue to thrive alongside industrial development. Audubon is also working to ensure that environmental compliance requirements for the lithium developers are not overlooked or rushed and that water use is as judicious as possible.

The photos below are from the 11/16 overflight. Click for more aerial photos from the 11/15 flight.


Click for geo-referenced photos from the flights. This .kmz file is best viewed in Google Earth

Flight Images

Flight Location