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The Resource
Oct 27, 2021
Season 1 | Episode 4

The Resource

Welcome to California’s Salton Sea, a dying region that might recover thanks to the lithium in the brine bubbling deep underground.

We’re back on the road this week! Our destination? The Salton Sea, in the Southern California desert near the Mexican border. The perfect place to go as the planet heats up. It was once marketed as “Palm Springs with water,” but now the sea is receding and increasingly toxic. The community that once thrived here has one of the highest rates of unemployment in the country. 

But there is some hope. All around the toxic sea is a huge amount of lithium. It’s in the bubbling hot brine deep underground — a potential game changer as we transition our cars, buildings and power grids off of fossil fuels.

There are already 11 geothermal power plants that use the brine as a source of renewable energy in this area. Now, the companies that own them are working to figure out how they can extract lithium from the brine they’re already pumping. We spoke to Rod Colwell, CEO of Controlled Thermal Resources. He doesn’t have a geothermal plant yet, but he said his company’s close to building one.

“There’s a lot of opportunity, if you think about it as a blank canvas,” said Colwell, an Australian entrepreneur who settled on the Salton Sea after searching the world for the perfect spot for his geothermal plant. “There’s been no deprivation of the mineral resource, no deprivation of the heat resource. It’s just a beast.” 

The technology Colwell’s company plans to use to extract the lithium from the brine hasn’t yet been used on a commercial scale. And some folks think that no matter how big the plans are, turning this area of California into “Lithium Valley” will take some time. 

“There’s never been a lithium project that I’m aware of — and I’m aware of most of them — that’s been on time. I don’t think there’s one that’s been on budget,” said Joe Lowry, a consultant on the production and sale of lithium, known colloquially in the industry as Mr. Lithium.

But rewards are likely to come to the company that does figure it out. Residents of the surrounding community are eager to see the Salton Sea reborn.

The first season of “How We Survive” is all about lithium and the messy business of finding climate solutions. New episodes are out every Wednesday. Be sure to follow us on your favorite podcast app, and tell a friend if you’re enjoying the show.

“How We Survive” episode 4, “The Resource” transcript

Note: Marketplace podcasts are meant to be heard, with emphasis, tone and audio elements a transcript can’t capture. Transcripts are generated using a combination of automated software and human transcribers, and may contain errors. Please check the corresponding audio before quoting it.

Molly Wood: We’re back to our road trip through the climate crisis, and on this stop there’s no need for sci-fi because we have arrived at a place that’s stranger than fiction. 

Miracle in the Desert: You are looking at a remarkable idea. 

Molly Wood: This is from an old ad called Miracle in the Desert.

Miracle in the Desert: An idea that has intrigued, and attracted, and literally thrilled thousands upon thousands of men, women and children – The Salton Sea.

Molly Wood: The Salton Sea refers to both the region and a body of water in southern California almost to the Mexican border, that back in the 1950s and 60s was marketed as “Palm Springs but with water.”

Miracle in the Desert: 3,085 square miles of water formed by accident back in 1905 when the Colorado River ran wild over man made dikes. 

Molly Wood: Hollywood stars like Sonny Bono and Frank Sinatra vacationed here.

Miracle in the Desert: Here is truly a miracle in the desert. Where you can find the good life in the sun. At the Salton Riviera, there is never a let-up in progress. 

Molly Wood: Driving up and down the north shore of the sea, you can still see the vibey old signs for beaches, hot springs, resorts, a yacht club. But these days, the businesses are long gone. The sea itself, long fed by agricultural runoff, is receding into a salty, increasingly toxic concentrate.

And visiting the landscape around the Salton Sea, well, feels like you’re going to a different planet. 

Molly Wood: Awesome. I’m rolling. Okay. So we’re about to exit the vehicle, which is a terrible idea because it is 111 degrees. Um, but we’re going to look at the moving geyser.

Moving geyser is what I said there, yeah. And if you’re thinking Old Faithful, this is not that.

Molly Wood: Smells geyser-y. 

This geyser is a stinking pit of bubbling mud, about ten feet in diameter maybe, with a ring of crystallized rock around it that my producer Caitlin did not want me to get close to. 

Caitlin Esch: Molly, I don’t think this is a good idea.

Molly Wood: This is partly because the pit stinks, and you can feel heat coming off it.

Molly Wood: There’s like bubbling, fricking hot ass water right here. 

Caitlin Esch: It’s so hot.

Molly Wood: Oh my God. 

And then of course, as I mentioned, it’s moving. 

Molly Wood: Trying to figure out how we can get the car closer.

Caitlin Esch: Why would we need to do that?

Molly Wood: It’s not like a jumping spider.

Molly Wood: The geyser moves a little slower than a slug, but considering that it’s geology, that’s actually terrifying. It started moving around 2015, maybe 2016, eating up every petroleum pipeline and highway and fiber optics cable and train track in its path.

Molly Wood: Yeah. It’s creepy out here. 

Caitlin Esch: It’s quiet. 

Molly Wood: It’s very quiet.

To get to the moving geyser, you walk down the middle of cracked, super-hot pavement on the old highway 111.

Molly Wood: This is like a zombie apocalypse scene. Like we’re walking down an empty highway. 

There are no cars because a whole new highway has been built a few feet to the west to avoid being swallowed up by the moving geyser. 

We were out there while they were building the new highway, and one of the guys directing traffic around the construction told us they’ll eventually have to tear that one up, too. 

Molly Wood: That seems really expensive. 

Construction Worker: It is, but there’s no other ways, you know, you cannot stop a geyser moving.

Molly Wood: No sir, no you cannot. 

The geyser is a surface level indicator of geothermal activity all around us.

This area is part of a system of ancient volcanoes, and there’s superheated magma underneath the earth’s crust. 

But the Salton Sea is also in between two big tectonic plates – literally in a hole  between two continents – so it’s below sea level. Essentially, the crust here is thin, so the heat is kind of busting through all around us.

There are also these mud pots, which are like mud volcanoes or vents releasing carbon dioxide that’s up to 200 degrees.

And that geothermal hotness makes this area special in other ways. 

First of all, it’s a hotbed (no pun intended) for renewable energy, and the whole region around the Salton Sea is just lousy with lithium. 

There’s enough lithium in this area of California to supply 40 percent of the entire world market. 

It has to be extracted of course, and right now no one is pulling lithium out of the weird hot bubbling desert around the Salton Sea at a commercial scale.

But the plan for getting it here is very different from the controversial open-pit mining being proposed in Thacker Pass, Nevada, where we visited earlier this season.

Here, the community wants lithium extraction projects, the methods of getting the lithium are much less energy intensive, and the process actually creates renewable energy.  

There’s hope that this is the better way to get this crucial metal to create batteries for electric cars and so much more. In fact, there’s hope that this is a whole new miracle in the desert. 

Welcome to How We Survive. I’m Molly Wood. This is episode four: The Resource  

We’re spending the next two episodes in this part of southern California. It’s officially known as the Imperial Valley, but lately people are calling it Lithium Valley. 

Here, unlike in Nevada, the lithium exists in boiling hot brine – salty water under the surface of the earth. The best way to get it is to build a geothermal power plant. 

Around the Salton Sea, these already exist. Companies are drilling deep wells to pull up the 600-degree fahrenheit brine.

They capture the steam from the brine as it cools and use the steam to spin a turbine to create energy. The brine gets pumped back into the earth and gets hot all over again for a truly renewable resource.  

And the Salton Sea brine is special. It’s got minerals in it…a lot of minerals: zinc, silica, manganese and yes, lithium.

And with the price of lithium skyrocketing, the companies that already have geothermal power plants want to figure out how to start taking lithium out of the brine they’re already using. 

And some hopeful latter-day 49ers are trying to build plants as fast as they possibly can to get to that lithium. 

Molly Wood: Holy Blazes. It gets hot here. 

It’s 120 degrees outside. 

A hundred and twenty degrees. Every surface becomes dangerous, like the running boards on a pickup truck.  

Molly Wood: Ow! Jesus. I literally burned my leg on the side of the truck.

Caitlin Esch: Did you?

Molly Wood: Oh, yeah. It’s not shocking.

I’m at the top of a rocky hill that it took all kinds of four-wheel drive to climb. It’s called Red Hill and the view is amazing.  

Rod Colwell: How’s this for a spot?

Molly Wood: I mean, oh my god! Just come and hang out up here all the time?

I’m with Rod Colwell, sitting inside his pickup truck blasting the air conditioning.

Rod Colwell: This is the highest point. We’re still at minus 220 feet below sea level, but the highest point in the whole valley. Yeah, so.

Molly Wood: And this is the volcano?

Rod is the CEO of Controlled Thermal Resources, one of several companies that plans to extract lithium and other critical minerals from the Salton Sea.

We came up here to look out over seven thousand acres of land that he plans to develop. 

It’s got a 360 degree view of all the bonkers landscape I was just describing. You can see the banks of the Salton Sea almost a mile away. This big, salty lake in the middle of the desert slowly wasting away. 

The mountains in the distance.

And you can see miles of dusty white playa baking in the sun.

Molly Wood: Oh my God, look at this. So that was all sea?

Rod Colwell: See the boat ramp?

There’s a boat ramp to nowhere – literally a ramp that used to lead to water and now just ends with sand all around it.  

Empty picnic tables where the sea used to reach.

All of this flat dry desert was underwater just 10 years ago.

Rod Colwell: That’ll give you an idea of what, how vast the sea is and how fast it’s receding.

Molly Wood: Yeah, I’ve been saying all week, like, you shouldn’t be able to see geologic time.

Rod Colwell: In the middle of summer, you’ll see 30 yards a month of recession out here.

Molly Wood: Really?

It seriously looks like “Mad Max: Fury Road” out here. But Rod doesn’t see just a scene from a sci-fi movie, or something out of a dystopian future. Rod has a vision for this hill.

Rod Colwell: So there’s a lot of opportunity, if you think about it as a blank canvas.

Molly Wood: Here’s a little fun fact about Rod that we noticed when he gave us a ride up to Red Hill: the display screen on his truck reads “Huge Hot Rod”.  

Molly Wood: He’s a brash dude. A guy with huge plans. 

He sees a massive geothermal plant, producing totally renewable energy, that also pulls minerals and metals out using that exact energy for a sustainable source of both power and necessary materials.

Eventually, he’d love to see an entire battery manufacturing plant out here – something that pretty much doesn’t exist in the U.S. right now. Soup to nuts green factory for greening the planet, basically. 

And whatever he builds, he says, can actually help the environment around us.  

Rod Colwell: Anything we put on that actually improves it. Right? Then it’s just exposed dust.

Molly Wood: You’re not really displacing anything.

Rod Colwell: No.

Rod wants to build a whole campus for this project here in what he and other companies are calling Lithium Valley.

Rod Colwell: We want trees, we want greenery. There’s species that can do salt sequestration. Well, let’s run with it, if you think back to natural desert species, well they were here in the first place, you know, so it’s not rocket science.

Molly Wood: So when you look out from this point, you have a whole different picture in your mind.

Rod Colwell: Oh, my God, I can see this. I can see a plant there and a cathode facility over there. A park over there, kangaroos jumping around.

Molly Wood: Definitely kangaroos. I’m here for that.

And I told you how the Salton Sea is special, both in terms of the lithium but also because the brine here is so hot, reliable and accessible. 

Rod wound up staking his flag in the Salton Sea after searching the world for the right spot to build a geothermal plant. 

Rod and his team looked at home in Australia –

Rod Colwell: A place called Winton.

Molly Wood: But it was too risky. They looked at New Zealand –

Rod Colwell: You know, New Zealand, there’s a lot there and the Pacific Rim of Fire, you know, on that whole rim thing, Indonesia.

Molly Wood: They looked at northern California – 

Rod Colwell: Lassen county, a place called Susanville was just beautiful.

Molly Wood: But the geysers there were losing heat and pressure. Not good for a long-term investment.

And then finally, they found the Salton Sea.

Rod Colwell: You put a well down anywhere and you’re going to get a flowing well, you know, that’s unusual.

Molly Wood: Rod says the first geothermal well ever drilled in the Salton Sea was on the exact land he intends to develop. An accidental discovery in 1927 –

Rod Colwell: Where they tried to find water and found steam and all this different colored mud. Apparently, it spewed out for months and that’s when they first come across it.

Molly Wood: The Resource at the Salton Sea was better than he could have imagined. 

Rod Colwell: It’s been operating for nearly 40 years. So there’s been no deprivation of the mineral resource, no deprivation of the heat resource. It’s just a beast. You put a tracer in these, in these wells and they can’t, they can’t pick them up. They just disappear somewhere in the whole void of what’s going on down there.

Molly Wood: All the minerals and metals were kind of just a bonus.

And now that there’s a whole new market for the lithium especially, Rod has plans to extract and sell all of it.

Rod Colwell: So really, we’re a mine with thermal heat. We sold every ounce of it in offtake agreements, silica, zinc, and manganese is, you know, under a deal.

Molly Wood: By “offtake agreement”, Rod means buyers. CTR already has a deal with GM and other unnamed companies for the lithium, plus deals to sell all the other minerals in the brine. Deals to sell the power.

In fact, every time we talked to Controlled Thermal Resources, the plans get bigger. Back in the summer they told us that by 2024, they’d be selling 20-thousand metric tons per year of lithium hydroxide and producing 50 MegaWatts of power. That was pretty ambitious according to some industry analysts we talked to.  

By September, those power estimates had gone up six times, to 310 megawatts and a hundred thousand tons of lithium per year – again, all by 2024 and all while not a single brick had been laid in the Imperial Valley.  

But Rod is betting that the price of lithium is just gonna keep going up, and there will be more than enough buyers for the renewable energy to meet the U.S.’s goals to be carbon neutral by 2035, and all the other minerals in the brine to boot.  

All he needs to do is build this sucker. 

But it won’t be easy. Much of the land he’s leasing is currently underwater. Under the Salton Sea, waiting to be exposed by nature. 

And also, the technology he plans to use to get the lithium? It doesn’t totally exist yet, outside of a lab or pilot project.

And it has never succeeded at a commercial scale. So, not everyone is sold. 

Joe Lowry: There’s never been a lithium project that I’m aware of, and I’m aware of most of them, that’s been on time. I don’t think there’s one that’s been on budget.

Molly Wood: This is Joe Lowry, aka Mr. Lithium. He’s a consultant on the production and sale of lithium. He’s worked in the lithium ion battery business for 30 years, basically since the beginning. 

He’s a believer in the market for lithium, and he says he hopes the Salton Sea projects will succeed. But he says geothermal energy production alone is harder than it looks, let alone the lithium extraction. 

Joe Lowry: What junior lithium companies tend to do even if they’re associated with geothermal – and, and oftentimes, especially if they’re associated with geothermals – is make a lot of announcements, aspirational announcements, announcements that drive stock price. And I’m not saying it’s specifically true in Rod’s case, but it wouldn’t be the first time. And I promise you on my firstborn that they will not produce 50,000 tons in 2024, let alone 100.

Molly Wood: And even the companies in the Salton Sea that have operational geothermal plants are a lot more circumspect. Right now, there are eleven plants operating in the Salton Sea, and ten of them are owned by Berkshire Hathaway – a very big company that’s more about under-promising. 

Jonathan Weisgall: I guess if this is a baseball game, we’re probably in the bottom of the first inning.

Molly Wood: Jonathan Weisgall is the VP of government regulations at Berkshire Hathaway Energy. 

The company has funding from the California Energy Commission and the Department of Energy to develop a process to extract lithium from geothermal brine and then convert it to what’s known as “battery grade lithium hydroxide.”

Jonathan says if all goes well, and if the lithium market stays strong, they’ll begin construction in 2024.

Jonathan Weisgall: We’ve recovered it in the laboratory. But we’ve got to show that we can do it on a commercial scale. So we want to rush. But at the same time, we have got to crawl before we walk and we have to walk before we run.

Molly Wood: This is the kind of thing he says a lot.

Jonathan Weisgall: We are crawling before we’re walking and we are walking before we’re running.

Jonathan Weisgall: I’m not exaggerating when I say we’re in the bottom of the first inning here. We’re a pretty conservative company. We would rather under promise and over deliver. 

Molly Wood: And finally…

Jonathan Weisgall: I can’t stress enough that this simply has not been done on a commercial basis.

Molly Wood: But these are not concerns that are troubling Rod Colwell.

Controlled Thermal Resources says it’s got the technology part of the problem figured out 

One of the companies it’s working with is Lilac Solutions, a Bay Area startup working on ways to extract the actual lithium from the actual brine. And well, you know how I love a lab tour. 

Dave Snydacker: Well, welcome to Lilac.

Molly Wood: Thank you. Delighted to be here.

CEO Dave Snydacker gave us the tour of the lab, a massive warehouse in West Oakland.

Molly Wood: So now we’re standing in a pretty big warehouse like, Costco size?

Dave Snydacker: Yes. So we’re standing in a 40,000 square foot room, which–

Molly Wood: Costco is literally my only reference point for a huge warehouse apparently.

There’s even a “brine library”.

Molly Wood: What’s the right way to follow the brine, if you will?

These huge plastic vats of brine, in rows on the floor.

Dave Snydacker: We have more than 100 tons of brine delivered to us from all over the world, including from the Salton Sea right here in California and from large, high desert salt flats in Argentina and in Chile and from other new sources of lithium here in the United States. 

Molly Wood: Dave and his team take samples from the brine and run experiments to try to get the most resource out of the brine at the highest quality, with the least amount of effort.  

What sets Dave’s technology apart, he says, are these “beads”. They look like light colored sand and they absorb lithium out of brine, even if there isn’t a lot of it.  

Molly Wood: Tell me more about the beads, that’s like the special sauce, right?

Dave Snydacker: The ion exchange beads are the core of our process. We’ve developed a new ion exchange bead, which is very selective for lithium, so it can recover lithium from brines with very low concentrations. And that allows us to economically produce lithium from these brines for the first time. 

Molly Wood: Dave Snydacker has the air of someone who knows he’s got something really special and is maybe about to make a ton of money. In fact, just a couple months after we visited, Lilac raised $150 million dollars from investors including BMW.  

Molly Wood: I mean, this is like a pretty big race right now, right? We keep hearing about the white gold rush. Like, how much of a hurry are you in to quickly get to pilot and then quickly get to production?

Dave Snydacker: Right now, the whole economy– 

Molly Wood: You’re like wiggling, even as I say that, you’re like, yeah. Oh, yeah, no, I know.

Dave Snydacker: The whole economy is restructuring around electric vehicles right now. And the critical material, the bottleneck for this whole energy transition, is lithium. Lithium is the essential material that’s starting from the smallest baseline. We need to ramp up lithium production by 30 X, and that’s not something that happens very often in metals production.

Molly Wood: Right now, the U.S. makes basically zero batteries and the process barfs a lot of carbon into the air. 

Most batteries are manufactured in China, so the lithium is shipped across the world to a plant that is pretty likely to be powered by coal.

And then the batteries are shipped all the way back to the US to go in a power wall or an E-V. How do you get to numbers like 30-X? Well, here’s how. 

Molly Wood: Can you give us a relative sense of, like, how much lithium is required for, you know, a long range Tesla battery?

Dave Snydacker: So, a Tesla requires about one hundred pounds of lithium salts.

Molly Wood: Wow. OK, compare that to like a cell phone.

Dave Snydacker: And a cell phone would be a few grams of lithium salts. 

Molly Wood: One hundred pounds.

Dave Snydacker: One hundred pounds of lithium salts, and to produce that much lithium, you’re talking about a tanker truck full of brine. Now that brine will be processed on site, it doesn’t need to be shipped. But a tanker truck is the volume of brine that would need to be processed to produce lithium for one electric vehicle. 

Molly Wood: Holy cow. 

Dave Snydacker: And we’re lucky to have very large volumes of this brine out in the desert, and we’ll need to pump very large amounts of it through the plant. For example, a full scale plant will process about 1,000 liters of brine per second. You can imagine a tank of brine about the size of a refrigerator. We’ll be processing that much brine every second. 

Molly Wood: Holy. Cow. And here’s where I should point out that some people who are familiar with how hot and corrosive and difficult Salton Sea brine is are skeptical that Lilac is gonna be able to pull this off

Molly Wood: There is, you know, just to dish a little bit, a little bit of skepticism about your process. Is there something special about the brine? Do you, I mean, you know, how do you respond to this idea that you might not be up to the task of this really tough brine? 

Dave Snydacker: I come from the world of lithium ion batteries where we saw hundreds of companies make grandiose claims and very, very few ever deliver. So I’ve seen firsthand what happens when the new technology is developed and initial performance is very strong, but the performance dies over time. So the same thing that we saw happen with advanced battery technologies is happening in lithium technologies as well. You have many companies that can recover lithium from the brine, but their beads and their process are not durable. So the performance dies very quickly and the process is not economic. 

Molly Wood: Translation: we got this. Full steam ahead. No pun intended. 

And despite any questions about whether Controlled Thermal Resources is moving too fast or can deliver what it’s promising, when you visit the Imperial Valley and ask people around the Salton Sea what they think, the answer is pretty much the same: bring it on. We need it. Because this region is dying. That’s after the break. 

The Salton Sea is in a desert basin, surrounded by mountains. It’s actually below sea level. And over the past ten thousand years or so, it has flooded and evaporated countless times, never staying a “sea” for very long.

Frank Ruiz: If you talk to the Native American communities here in the area, they will tell you that the water has always been here because that was cyclical, right. Um, Colorado river, we used to flood this area and then nature will take over.

Molly Wood: This is Frank Ruiz, the Salton Sea director of the Audubon Society and an expert on the history and the ecology of the region. 

I met up with him at the North Shore Beach and Yacht Club, which is an incredible throwback to the postcard-perfect heyday of the 50s and 60s. Flat, rectangular mid-century architecture, palm trees, birds flying past. Frank wore a big floppy hat with binoculars around his neck and we walked out on the playa that used to be underwater. 

Frank Ruiz: The Salton Sea is just the last iteration of the ancient lake.

Molly Wood: This last iteration is a bit of a freak of nature. It was formed more than 100 years ago, when irrigation engineers diverted water from the Colorado river through a system of canals to turn desert into farmland.

In 1905, there was a great flood and the canal burst. For two years, water poured from the Colorado River into the basin, creating the Salton Sea we know today.

The sea has been fed ever since by the water that runs off from the surrounding desert farms. But get one whiff of this strange place and you instantly know that something is really wrong. 

Molly Wood: Tell me about the toxicity, because it seems like in addition to all of that, the decaying sea itself is creating, like you said, a lot of public health hazard. 

Frank Ruiz: Pretty much everything that you put on those agricultural fields ends up at Salton Sea. Whether it is nitrogen, whether it’s pesticides, whether whatever it is, any chemical that you put in the field eventually will be washed out into the sea.

Molly Wood: The dying sea is the main reason the Imperial Valley has one of the highest asthma rates in the country. The sand and dust around it is so toxic that we could feel it in our throats and noses at night after we visited.

Frank has been visiting this Salton Sea for years now, taking soil samples and documenting the decline of the birds. 

Frank Ruiz: Over 400 different species used to visit the Salton sea. Now in our data, show that no more than 250 species are visiting the Salton Sea.

Molly Wood: A brown pelican glides by and Frank has to stop talking in order to admire it, because he hardly ever sees them anymore.  

Frank Ruiz: One of the very few brown pelicans. 

Molly Wood: Wow.

In 2003, a deal between two big regional utilities diverted water that would have ended up in the Salton Sea, to places like San Diego and the Coachella Valley. 

And as the water that’s left evaporates, it becomes saltier, killing the fish.

And soon, the bugs in the earth around the lake’s perimeter will disappear too. And then there will be nothing left for the birds to eat.

Frank Ruiz: I think the birds are good indicators for how good or how bad your environment is. And a lot of the bird species are either dying or flying away. And are we next down the line? 

Molly Wood: Spoiler alert – Frank says yes. 

Frank Ruiz: So, so any, any biologist will know that an ecosystem that is losing its diversity is an ecosystem that is on the brink of a really, you know, big crisis. 

Molly Wood: Collapse. 

Soon, he says. 

Frank Ruiz: I think we’re on the brink of one of the major ecological collapses in the next, you know, year or two.

Molly Wood: And while you wouldn’t think that lithium extraction could help a region on the verge of an ecological collapse, Frank Ruiz is hopeful about this new industry.

Frank Ruiz: It will benefit California. It will benefit the region. It will benefit the nation as a whole.

Molly Wood: Frank hopes the companies who want their workforce to come from the Imperial Valley will have an incentive to help keep it healthy.

Frank Ruiz: It can be a win, win, win situation if it is done properly.

Molly Wood: And if Frank is hoping for the ecological win, the towns around the Salton Sea are hoping for an economic recovery, after decades of decline, including when the tourism from the sea also dried up. 

Maria Nava-Froelich: It was like a beach, a place to go to for leisure, for recreation. 

Molly Wood: Maria Nava-Froelich grew up in the tiny town of Niland, about 5 miles from the banks of the Salton Sea.

Maria Nava-Forelich: As time has gone by, it’s dying. Fish are dying. It smells.

Molly Wood: Did you ever go there when you were little?

Maria Nava-Froelich: Maybe once or twice. Our parents took us there. It was a nice place to go to on both sides of the Salton Sea. But yeah, now it’s become a disaster.

Molly Wood: Maria lives in Calipatria, one town over from where she grew up. 

She’s a city council member, and runs a family resource center at the Calipatria School District 

She says the Imperial Valley is economically distressed, with the highest unemployment rate in the country.

But it wasn’t always that way, Maria says. She remembers the modest economic heyday from when she was growing up. 

Maria Nava-Froelich: I grew up in Niland. My father, he was immigrated from Mexico. He would do farm work and he would do some kind of factory work.

Molly Wood: Niland was FAMOUS for its tomatoes. And every year .. the town would throw a tomato festival.

Maria Nava-Froelich: And that was beautiful.

Molly Wood: There was a tomato packing contest.

Maria Nava-Froelich: A parade. They would have music and dancing and entertainment. They would have different contests 

Molly Wood: And they would crown a Tomato Queen.

Maria Nava-Froelich: And we make it fun. We dress up like we’re going to, like a prom dress and then we buy the crowns. There was a lot of preparation to keep the tradition. 

Molly Wood: One year, Maria was the Tomato Queen.

Maria Nava-Froelich: I was!

Molly Wood: These days, the tomato industry has largely moved south to Mexico.

And Niland can no longer afford to throw its annual festival. Maria fears the same thing will soon happen to Calipatria, and that the devastation will keep spreading. 

Maria Nava-Froelich: We do what we can to survive, you know what I mean? We scrape here. We scrape there. But how much can the community sustain?

Molly Wood: So yes, she says, bring on the lithium. 

Maria Nava-Froelich: We want lithium to, not to be our savior, but to kind of like help our community to, to start to, maybe it’s the beginning of something better to come. More will come when lithium comes.

So do we put our hopes in Lithium Valley? Yes, we do.

Molly Wood: Hopes, she says, but not blind faith. There are some demands, too.

Maria Nava-Froelich: We don’t want companies to just come and grab, you know, take our resources and then, you know, make all this money, get rich on our backs, because this is our community.

Molly Wood: There’s talk of taxes that would go to local schools of course, and perhaps a community fund set up by the geothermal companies operating in the region.

That would share some of the profits from the lithium mining to help fund parks and roads and infrastructure.

Jobs, yes, but jobs that go to local people, with classes at the community college nearby to train residents to work in the industry, and a new cycle of economic growth. 

Maria Nava-Froelich: I’m hoping with that, you know, we’ll have some developers and retail business coming so that our north end in Niland, Calipatria, we don’t become ghost towns.

What’s interesting about this optimism is that the Imperial Valley has been let down before, by promises that sound kind of familiar. All throughout the 2000s, there were failed mineral extraction projects around the Salton Sea. In 2014, the California legislature failed to pass a bill to boost geothermal development in the region.

On top of that, big solar and wind projects back in the early 2010s promised new jobs and skills for residents, but ended up either bringing in workers from other parts of the country or having few jobs available at all.

Or worse, community leaders told us, solar projects displaced agricultural land and actually took jobs away from farm workers. 

Luis Olmedo: We live in a very rich community. This is wealth, but it’s poorly distributed.

Molly Wood: Luis Olmedo is the executive director of the Comite Civico del Valle, a farm workers’ health and environmental justice organization. 

Like Frank and Maria, he projects a mix of decades of disappointment combined with a sort of bitter hope. 

Luis Olmedo: And as we see this new opportunity of this white gold, you know, that is often referred to, it’s great. I’d rather see electric vehicles than fossil fuel powered vehicles, but it’s going to be really important that the communities involved, that all the information is upfront and transparent.

Molly Wood: Luis has a seat on the Lithium Valley Commission, a group formed this year … by Governor Gavin Newsom to look at the risk and the reward of a “Lithium Valley”.

Luis is there to represent farmworkers and locals who’ve watched for decades as industries come and go, sometimes leaving a toxic mess for the community to clean up.

Luis Olmedo: We have all the adequate conditions for this industry to thrive as long as they want to, right. But if they’re going to come in here with shortchanging us, this is not the day to do it. This is not the year or the time to do it, right. Maybe that was yesterday, not today.

Molly Wood: The Lithium Valley Commission is part of why people like Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm and others feel like this project is so different from what’s happening in Thacker Pass, in Nevada.

Where much of the community is upset and opposed to the mine and protesters are organizing against it and saying they weren’t informed about what would really happen. 

This commission got the community engaged all along, before projects started, so people feel heard, invested and generally on board. 

Back on Red Hil, looking out over the desert, dreaming of a lithium campus and kangaroos leaping across the playa…

Rod Colwell says he’s open to all of it. 

I asked him about the idea of a community resource fund where locals get a share of the profits.

Molly Wood: I was saying it was like Alaska, how the Alaskan citizens get a thousand dollars because of that oil development. Like, could everybody get a geothermal heat or cold, cold pump, or, better yet, you know, electrified bus fleets for the cities? Is there an opportunity to spread the love around with the community investment fund?

Rod Colwell: I think it’s certainly on the table. So that absolutely is on, on discussion at the moment. So, in fact, I’ve got meetings next week about that and hoping to come up with an agreeable concept and absolutely administer it to help the community and in whatever form, yeah.

Molly Wood: For his part, Rod has a wish list of things he wants from the government: tax breaks, an enterprise zone, expediting the permitting process.

Everybody wants something. Everybody sees the potential and wants to cash in on the white gold rush.

And of course, there is still the part where we need all those batteries to transition to renewable energy and electrify transportation – gentle reminder about the climate crisis.

But amidst all this hope, are still the hard realities of business and science. 

Before any taxes or community funds or jobs or kangaroos can happen, companies have to successfully and economically extract lithium from the Salton Sea. 

And even though they say they’ve got it covered, well, plenty have died on this hill before … 

Eric: And he said any time anybody wants to say that they’re going to try some new idea at the Salton Sea, have them come visit me and I’ll drive them around and show them the headstones of all the people that tried that before.

Molly Wood: That’s the next stop

Caitlin Esch: We have a little bit of a situation here.

on our Salton Sea road trip.

Molly Wood: The thing you definitely don’t want to crap out in 118 degrees in the desert when you have like, some driving to do is the AC. 

Next week on How We Survive. And if you have questions about any of this – what’s happening in the Salton Sea, about how you can change your life to adapt to the climate crisis – send em to us: survive@marketplace.org. We might even answer them on this show.

How We Survive was created and hosted by me, Molly Wood

Caitlin Esch produced this episode. 

With help from Grace Rubin and Marque Greene.

Caitlin and I wrote it.

Editing by Hayley Hershman. With help from Catherine Winter 

Special thanks to Peter Thomson

Scoring and sound design by Chris Julin 

Mixing by Brian Allison

Field engineering by Lianna Squillace 

Sitara Nieves is our Executive Producer 

Our theme music is by Wonderly

Thank you for listening! Please subscribe if you haven’t … and tell a friend. 

The team

Molly Wood Host
Caitlin Esch Senior Producer
Hayley Hershman Producer
Marque Greene Associate Producer