Can lithium cure ailments in the Salton Sea?

Studying the intricacies of mud on the ocean floor is a lifetime’s work for Timothy Lyons, so when the tall and lean biogeochemist asks you to join an expedition to find chemical mysteries buried deep beneath the waves, prepare- you get wet and dirty.

On a recent foray on California’s largest and most troubled lake, Lyons rode a 15-horsepower zodiac through the Salton Sea against the backdrop of desolate mountains, dunes and miles of spiky shoreline bones of thousands of dead. fish and birds.

As he approached the center of the lake with a group of passengers, including two members of his lab at UC Riverside, Lyons said, “Shut off the engine. Let’s take some mud.

Moments later Caroline Hung, 24, and Charles Diamond, 36, dropped a coring device on the side, then lifted a sample of sediment gray at the bottom, dark brown at the top, and as gooey as butter peanut.

“The Salton Sea’s big problem is mixed in with that organic brown layer on top – and to be honest, it’s scary,” said Lyons, 63. “It’s loaded with pesticides and heavy metals – molybdenum, cadmium and selenium – which linger in greater concentrations in deeper water.

“This should be of concern to people, as the Salton Sea is shrinking and exposing more and more of these substances to the scouring winds that carry them far,” he added. “Our goals include mapping the location of these hazardous materials and determining where they come from and what they can become if trends continue. “

UC Riverside professor Tim Lyons and doctoral student Caroline Hung are preparing a corer in the Salton Sea to collect sediment for their research.

(Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)

For the Lyon research team, filling in the blanks in existing data is an obsession, and this could have significant implications at a time when the air is practically crackling with a volatile mix of environmental hazard and economic opportunities promised by the ongoing efforts to mine immense reserves of lithium, a key ingredient in rechargeable batteries.

Few people dispute the need for swift action on the 343 square mile lake straddling Imperial and Riverside counties, about 150 miles southeast of Los Angeles. Clouds of poisonous salty and alkaline dust containing heavy metals, agricultural chemicals and fine powdery particles linked to asthma, respiratory disease and cancer roll over the newly exposed playa, threatening the health of thousands of nearby residents.

Delays and costs are increasing for many projects that were designed to be showcases for restoration and dust mitigation. Scientists say this is because the projects were developed without considering heat waves, severe droughts and water cuts due to climate change, or the constantly changing underlying geology of the landlocked hypersaline lake. at the southern end of the San Andreas Fault, where moving tectonic plates bring molten matter and hot geothermal brine closer to the Earth’s surface.

Today, large companies investing in proposals to extract lithium from brine produced by local geothermal operations have rekindled hopes for jobs and income from land leases, with lithium recovery projects potentially supporting internships, education programs and environmental restoration projects for years to come.

The big question at a recent meeting sponsored by the Lithium Valley Commission, a group of lawmakers and community leaders organized to help guide decisions that could affect low-income communities surrounding the Salton Sea, was: which does this bring us back?

“The lithium rush at the Salton Sea cannot be stopped,” said Frank Ruiz, Audubon California program director for the lake and a member of the lithium commission. The communities around the Salton Sea, he said, “see this as a victory – a ticket to a better life.”

“If done right,” he said, “it will uplift the region by creating jobs, benefit the state and the nation by making geothermal energy more affordable, and lay the groundwork for negotiations to to ensure that a portion of the royalties from lithium production and related land leases are used to support dust reduction and environmental restoration projects.

Jonathan Weisgall, spokesperson for Berkshire Hathaway Energy, which recently received a $ 6 million grant from the California Energy Commission for a demonstration project at a geothermal facility in the nearby community of Calipatria, agreed, but did not no guarantees.

“My passion is workforce development and economic opportunities in the clean energy sector,” Weisgall said. “We don’t want to bring in a workforce from outside Imperial County if we don’t have to. “

Three people on a boat lower a corer into the water.

“The big deal at the Salton Sea is mixed in with that organic brown layer on top – and to be honest, it’s scary,” says Tim Lyons, center. “It’s loaded with pesticides and heavy metals.”

(Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)

A person's hands point to a tube of mud and sediment.

A sediment core from the Salton Sea shows a gradual change from gray mud at the bottom to a darker, organic-rich material caused by fertilizer runoff from farmland.

(Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)

The Salton Sea was created in 1905 when the Colorado River passed through a silt-laden canal and roared unhindered for two years in a basin near Brawley then known as the Salton Sink.

Fishermen have flocked to its barnacle-covered shores to catch corvina, croaker and sargo. Birds have flocked to its wetlands, making it one of the most important stops along the Pacific flyway for species including 90% of migrating white pelicans.

But the Salton Sea is a non-draining body of water – that’s what technically makes it a sea and not a lake – without the capacity to cleanse itself. Agricultural runoff laden with salt and selenium as well as heavy metals deposited over the past 116 years are trapped in its waters, authorities said.

Some scientists believed that 2018 would be the start of a deep environmental, health and economic disaster for California.

The change was predicted in 2003 when the state legislature promised to slow the shrinking of the lake as part of a successful effort to persuade the Imperial Irrigation District to sell some of its water to San Diego. Under the agreement, the district stopped sending fresh water to the lake on December 31, 2017.

With relatively little water flowing, the salinity level continues to rise. It is now around 68 parts per thousand, officials say. This is almost twice as high as the salinity of the Pacific Ocean, which is about 35 parts per thousand.

The high salinity of the Salton has made it inhospitable to tilapia, a primary food source for migrating birds; the fish have practically ceased to reproduce. Visitor bird populations are only a small fraction of what they once were.

The only fish in the Salton Sea today are inch-long desert puppies and hybrid tilapia. Scientists say even these will only survive near river mouths and canals once the salinity level hits 70 parts per thousand, which is expected in the next few years.

A study by the United States Bureau of Reclamation concluded that doing nothing to maintain the viability of the Salton Sea could require nearly $ 10 billion in mitigation projects.

Critics cite the US Fish and Wildlife Service’s Red Hill Bay project in the Salton Sea as an example of what has not been accomplished. The restoration program was designed to create over 500 acres of shallow marine habitat for migrating shorebirds at the southern end of the sea in Imperial County, using water from a nearby river and a 183,000 pound steel barge with pumps anchored a mile offshore.

Six years of delays added costs to the project’s original $ 5.3 million budget. But it may never cross the finish line due to a series of unforeseen issues that have occurred as the Salton Sea recedes and its tributary flows decline. For example, the Alamo River is no longer considered a water source for the Project because its flows have fallen below an inlet designed to guide water into the proposed marine habitat.

Three people launch a boat into a lake.

UC Riverside researchers Tim Lyons, Charlie Diamond and Caroline Hung, left to right, launch a skiff into the Salton Sea.

(Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)

As of November, the Fish and Wildlife Service had spent about $ 1 million on grants and budget allocations for the project, federal officials said. A $ 3.3 million grant from the California Wildlife Conservation Board to help complete the work requires the Fish and Wildlife Service to secure a 25-year lease with the Imperial Irrigation District by December 31, said Pam Bierce, spokesperson for the federal government. agency.

On top of that, a year ago, the Imperial County Air Pollution Control District slapped the Irrigation District, which owns the property, with an ordinance to deal with dust emanating from the construction site. The irrigation district responded with surface roughness techniques that reduced dust by 90%.

“The Red Hill Bay project was a solution to a problem that existed 15 years ago,” said Tina Shields, water department manager for the Irrigation District. “The design doesn’t work anymore because it’s a dynamic place and the conditions have changed. “

Beyond that, CalEnergy Resources Ltd., a subsidiary of Berkshire Hathaway Energy, has a pre-existing lease for the entire surface area of ​​the project.

In a recent response to questions from Rep. Raul Ruiz (D-Coachella), the Irrigation District said it “will work with CalEnergy to integrate their geothermal and lithium development plans on a commercial scale to benefit from the local community and the rest of California.

The Salton Sea remains an environmental war zone like no other. The Lyons team aims to collect information that can help stakeholders make the best decisions for the future.

His team members’ recent adventure in the Salton Sea got off to a rocky start when they gathered in bulging life jackets at one of the few places a boat can be launched: an expanse away from shallows and seepage up to the ankles. .

After several minutes of pushing and pulling their small skiff through deeper water, they climbed aboard and set off on tea-colored water as smooth as glass. Their target was 30 feet below the surface.

“It is an exciting time to investigate the contents of the sludge that we remove from the water,” Hung said. “It contains pieces of information that could help bring environmental justice to local communities. “

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