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The Salton Sea region is rich with geothermal activity and lithium reserves, reports show. simonkr/Getty Images

CA - A struggling California region is suddenly poised to become very, very rich

Imperial County, a sprawling desert region three hours southeast of Los Angeles that straddles the U.S.-Mexico border, may not be what you would typically associate with Southern California.

Home to ramshackle landmarks like Salvation Mountain, the Salton Sea and Bombay Beach, it’s the least populated county in the region with just 180,000 residents. But U.S. politicians are suddenly interested in this rural area for other reasons — namely, the wealth of lithium deep beneath its surface. The rare mineral used in batteries, now in particularly high demand with the rise of electric vehicles, could be enough to produce 375 million batteries for that use, according to a new report.

Imperial County — which now touts itself as Lithium Valley — is sitting on an estimated 3,400 kilotons of lithium, according to the 2023 study authored by Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. The coveted mineral is mostly found in Australia, China and Chile, and U.S. officials predict that demand for this “critical” resource will skyrocket by 4,000% over the next several decades.  

A lithium ‘gold mine’ in the California desert

A previous report from the county stated that it could take up to 100 years to completely extract the lithium, and a salt and potassium mine located in the Salton Sea region is “believed to have the highest concentration of lithium contained in geothermal brines in the world,” per the state.

In a region where 24.9% of children were living in poverty in 2022 and, while the median income for the county in 2021 was closer to $49,000, some towns have a median income below $2,500 per year, local officials believe this resource will uplift families for generations, all thanks to the strange primordial brew lurking thousands of feet beneath the surface.


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Over the past several million years, sources such as Colorado River water, sediment and volcanic rocks likely introduced the rare mineral to the dry desert region, the Berkeley Lab report states. It’s so abundant, it could produce more than $7 billion worth of lithium carbonate per year, a 2020 report from the California Energy Commission reads, based on the 2020 price of $12,000 per ton.

Currently, there are 11 geothermal plants situated along the Salton Sea that produce low-carbon energy, and BHE Renewables — which owns 10 of them — is trying to figure out how to use them to extract lithium. Per Politico, EnergySource Minerals, one of three companies spearheading lithium production by the Salton Sea’s southern shore, has said it plans to start mining in 2025.

Many remaining unknowns

Recovering lithium from 1,500 feet below the earth’s surface is no simple task, Pat Dobson, a Berkeley Lab staff scientist, told SFGATE in a written statement. Geothermal production wells extract the lithium-rich brine from thousands of feet below the earth’s surface, and once the lithium is dissolved from the brine, the liquid is pumped back underground.

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