Addressing the Salton Sea Crisis

November 15, 2021 

California’s new Lithium Valley Commission is currently investigating the potential issues and incentives of extracting lithium, a metal used to make batteries for cars and electronics, at the Salton Sea and will reports its findings to the Legislature next fall. Lithium is plentiful in the “hot, mineral-abundant brine” below the lake’s surface, and this new Commission is part of a promising new effort for the Salton Sea’s future. According to a 2020 report from the California Energy Commission, the Salton Sea “is capable of producing an estimated 600,000 tons per year of lithium carbonate with a value of $7.2 billion” – enough to meet current global demand.

While the abundance of lithium in the Salton Sea is promising, California must also focus on the detrimental effects of the shrinking lake. In its 2015 report Averting Disaster: Action Now for the Salton Sea and in its 2016 letter to the Governor and Legislature on the same topic, the Little Hoover Commission found that inaction on the receding Salton Sea has dangerous impacts:

  • Public Health: Dust from exposed lakebeds can evade respiratory defenses and be inhaled into the lungs, causing asthma, bronchitis, and other lung and cardiovascular diseases in a region already suffering from toxic air and high asthma hospitalization rates.

  • Wildlife: Fish will die as the Salton Sea becomes shallower and saltier, devastating the food supply for more than 400 species of birds who rely on the lake’s ecosystem. Protected breeding and nesting grounds for millions of migratory birds will disappear as the Sea shrinks.

  • Regional Economy: Increased dust from the Salton Sea threatens crops and livestock in Imperial and Riverside counties, along with the livelihoods of those who grow and harvest these crops. The worsening air quality will negatively impact tourism throughout the Coachella Valley.

Immediate action must be taken to effectively address the Salton Sea crisis. In its reports, the Commission recommended that California make the Salton Sea as high a priority as reducing carbon emissions and increasing renewable energy. With over 600,000 Californians – many of whom are members of low-income minority communities – in harm’s way of the environmental impact from non-action, designating the lake as one of California’s top priorities is of paramount importance.

As part of prioritizing the Salton Sea, the Commission urged the Governor and the Secretary of the Natural Resources Agency to expedite work on short-term lake restoration projects that aim to mitigate the shrinking Sea’s detrimental effects and revitalize diverse habitats. Not only does this involve enacting legislation to ensure that any lawsuits filed in connection with this work are resolved in a year or less, but it also means streamlining and fast-tracking contracting for these projects. As engineering staff from the Department of Water Resources work on providing the infrastructure for water flow these short-term projects need, the state must provide clear guidelines to align construction requirements with habitat protection. And if additional barriers prevent swift progress on the Salton Sea going forward, the Governor should consider declaring a state of emergency to protect the health of vulnerable Californians at risk from the lake’s worst impacts.

The Salton Sea can either become a disaster or a model for overcoming environmental challenges. California has already taken promising steps to address the lake’s demise by appointing an assistant secretary for Salton Sea policy and convening a Salton Sea Task Force. Yet the magnitude of this catastrophe demands that more work be done. The Commission encourages state leaders to consider its recommendations to effectively address the Salton Sea crisis.  

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