Issues: Mining, Renewable Energy, Watersheds, Wildlife
Partners: Audubon Society, Telemundo
Airport Origin : Thermal, CA
Provide the press, conservation partners, and students with an aerial view of the Salton Sea - an area with a legacy of pollution that currently houses geothermal energy production and lithium mining.
The Salton Sea is designated an Audubon Important Bird Area of global significance. At its height more than 400 species of birds made regular use of the Salton Sea's deep water, shoreline, mudflats and wetlands, as well as the river channels and agricultural drains leading into it. In recent years, as the Sea's habitat becomes less stable, we have seen major changes for these birds. For instance, the Sea was historically a stopping point for 90% of the overwintering population of Eared Grebes. Now, with increasing salinity causing a change to their invertebrate food-source, the Eared Grebes have dwindled from millions to just handfuls. The majestic American White Pelicans, whose numbers each winter were in the thousands, have decreased to just a few birds. Not so long ago, the pelicans were so populous and popular that a festival was held each winter in their honor. The Salton Sea's bird habitat continues to dwindle.
The Salton Sea is one of the largest lithium storages in the world. Lithium is an essential component in electric batteries found in cell phones and electric cars, the demand for which is sky-rocketing. With up to six million metric tons of lithium stored underground, the area has been deemed "Lithium Valley". The Salton Sea is utilizing a new process to extract lithium from geothermal brine. There are 11 operational geothermal power stations at the Salton Sea. As energy is produced, the plants generate brine; lithium is then extracted from the brine before it's injected back into the ground. This process is much less degradative than the more common open pit lithium mining. The Sea's massive storage of "white gold" could provide massive economic revenue and hundreds of jobs for Imperial County, which currently has the highest unemployment rate in California.
The Sea has shrunk by around 40 square miles, uncovering soil ridden with heavy metals, small particulate matter, and pesticide residues. The Salton Sea contamination was clearly visible from the plane. When dry, these toxic materials can blow throughout the Coachella Valley and surrounding communities. As a result, the Salton Sea could become the single biggest point source of air pollution in the country, and a major public health threat to the nearly one million people living in the surrounding area.
As the Salton Sea continues to shrink, the threat to people and the risk of wildfire increases. With the onset of lithium extraction, managing the Sea is a complicated but urgent task. The Federal government owns more than 60% of the land in and outside the lake. The state has instituted the Salton Sea Management Program, but change isn't happening fast enough. Our partners are advocating for a stronger rehabilitation program. The Salton Sea needs adequate funding, staffing, and planning to address the Sea's many stakeholders, environmental concerns, and public health threats. The Federal government must work with the state and local governments to institute a program that will provide much-needed bird and wildlife habitat, suppress dust erosion, and provide economic benefits to the region.
Click to download a .KMZ file with geo-referenced photos from the flight.