Recently, Laurence Iliff over at Automotive News reported on Southern California’s Salton Sea possessing some of the world’s largest lithium reserves. This could greatly benefit not only North America’s EV industry as the article suggests, but also bolster the local economy and potentially remedy the high-salinity body of water’s currently toxic water quality. Or, could it rub salt in the wound?

Welcome to Headlight. This is a daily news feature that lights up one current event in the car world and breaks it down by three simple subheadings: What HappenedWhy It Matters, and What To Look For Next. Look for it in the morning (Eastern time) every weekday.

What Happened

The area in and around California’s Salton Sea is chock-full of geothermal deposits of lithium, which is beginning to be mined to increase the supply of this crucial element.

According to Iliff’s article, “According to the U.S. Department of Energy, the Salton Sea region has the potential to supply 600,000 tons of lithium each year, which is greater than current U.S. demand. There is only one large-scale lithium mine currently operating in the U.S., in Nevada.” 

Currently, world lithium production tops out at between 380,000 and 400,000 tons, according to the article. So as far as becoming a major player goes… U-S-A! U-S-A!

This also helps pave the way for big investment in EV production across the entire nation, too. According to Iliff, “In July, GM agreed to a multimillion-dollar strategic investment and commercial collaboration with Controlled Thermal Resources to secure the low-cost lithium from California. Efficient lithium sourcing is crucial for GM as it develops proprietary Ultium batteries with LG Energy Solution and pledges to invest $35 billion in electric and autonomous vehicle development through 2025.” 

He then includes that “GM plans to open Ultium cell plants with LG in Lordstown, Ohio, next year, and in Spring Hill, Tenn., in 2023. The automaker has said it will open at least two more Ultium plants in the U.S.”

Why It Matters

The only thing larger than this body of water’s surface area of 343 miles is its storied past. Prehistorically, it was the northern tip of the Gulf of California (also known as the Sea of Cortez). Over time, it became a shallow, waterless basin due to becoming increasingly more and more cut off from its oceanic source. Then, as recently (as far as epochs go) as 1905, a portion of the Colorado River was redirected to fill it in and serve as a water source for area agriculture. During the 1960s it was a sort of inland sea resort area, with hotels, sportfishing, boating activities, and more. However, over time, area agricultural runoff increased the Sea’s toxicity, which put the kibosh on recreation and turned various towns dotting its shoreline into ghost towns. Its water level has been receding at an alarming rate over the past two decades, creating all sorts of environmental hazards, particularly for those who live around it. OK, history lesson over.

This is one of the main reasons for the area being rather economically depressed. There have been attempts at having the state of California refill the Sea with water from the Gulf of California, but unfortunately, those attempts have not materialized into action. Even in light of its environmental hazards potentially affecting all of Southern California.

With industry moving in to cash in on deep, deep lithium reserves, the area’s economic depression could experience a major turnaround. Not only could this bring tax revenue, business development, housing development, and more to the area, but there could also potentially be rallying to do some long-overdue environmental cleanup. This wouldn’t just be for the good of the people, either, as the Salton Sea is a crucial stop on various bird species’ migrations.

Though, when you think about it, mining hasn’t exactly always been good to Mother Nature and could exacerbate the Sea’s already environmentally hazardous status.

What to Look For Next

Personally, I want all of this to be nothing but win: the good people of Imperial and Riverside counties get more money in the coffers and more development, the Sea gets cleaned up, and America gets a massive and steady supply of Lithium. This supply could not only meet the increasing demand of American technology and EV manufacturing but be a very profitable export. Oh, and of course prevent the US from seeking lithium from other places through sketchy methods… or at the very least prevent people from making that claim.

There have been various efforts in the past at revitalizing industry and quality of life around the Salton Sea. Will these big plans materialize into something great, or recede and fade away in the hot, low desert sun?