In Southern California, a huge body of water is drying up. But scientists have found a use for the shrinking lake. The Salton Sea is poised to recharge the economy of a nearly forgotten area.
The Salton Sea lies at the southern tip of the San Andreas Fault. The fault is a giant fracture in the Earth’s crust where two of Earth’s plates meet. In 1905, a series of dams and levees there broke. Water inundated the Salton Basin, named for its salt mines. Two years of flooding formed a shallow, landlocked, and very salty body of water 45 miles long and 25 miles wide.
In the 1950s, the lake thrived as a tourist destination. Fishers, boaters, and celebrities flocked to its shores. But storms in the 1970s destroyed the posh marinas and resorts. Flooding wrecked homes and businesses. After the water dried, the town lay deserted.
The lake level peaked in 1995. But since then, with little rain and water diversions to other farms, the Salton Sea has been evaporating quickly.
Since 2003, the lake has shrunk about 40 square miles. What remains is still a key stopover for migrating birds. But bird populations are declining as the fish they eat become scarce. Carcasses of oxygen-starved tilapia no longer fill the shores—because there are so few left. (See The Shrinking Salton Sea.)
Around the lake, the San Andreas Fault lets molten material ooze closer to Earth’s surface. The resulting heat creates underground reservoirs of ultra-hot water and steam. A geothermal power plant nearby produces usable energy from that steam. The captured steam rotates a turbine to trigger a generator: Eureka! Electricity.
The plant collects vats of water left behind from the steam-capturing. Tubes from the vats spit out salty liquid. Until recently, electric companies simply pumped the brine back underground. But the “wastewater” contains lithium metal, a critical component of rechargeable batteries.
Lithium is lightweight and soft. It’s also the newest hope for reviving the economically depressed region. As demand for electric vehicles increases, geothermal power companies “borrow” the steam water for a few hours to extract the metal. The byproduct may now be more valuable than the steam that generates electricity.
God reigns fully over every detail of creation. (Luke 12:7) He filled the world with vast resources, and He gifts humans with the ability to find them—even in wastewater!
Today, the Salton Sea is at the forefront of efforts to make the United States a major producer of lithium. Currently, Nevada has the country’s only dedicated lithium plant. But at least 14 U.S. companies and plants are working to extract lithium or retool current facilities to do so in other places.
Ruben Hernandez and his wife own a Mexican restaurant in a mostly deserted town near the Salton Sea. Lithium project backers stop by and tell him he could eventually be feeding 20 to 30 people and delivering lunches to their plants.
“If they are going to lift this town up, it would be great,” he says. But right now, “There’s nothing here, no town.”
Why? To understand how finding new uses for old things can change an economy; to expand knowledge about lithium’s sources and uses; and to glorify God for His gifts in creation.
Pray: For people suffering from lack of water and for those working to ease suffering around the world.