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From the file

White gold rush | The story of a dying lake, a forgotten community and the hunt for a green future

White gold rush
slow newscast

White gold rush

White gold rush

California’s largest lake was a giant mistake created by an accidental flood more than a century ago. Today, the Salton Sea is an environmental disaster. But could the communities around the shore of the dying lake be saved by the quest for green energy and the hunt for one of the most sought-after elements on earth?


transcript

“You are looking at a remarkable idea, an idea that has intrigued and attracted and literally thrilled thousands upon thousands of men, women and children. And you, my friends, are about to witness this idea become a reality, for this is the story of the miracle sea in the desert: the Salton Sea…”

Archive audio advertising the Salton Sea, miracle in the desert

Basia Cummings: Sometimes it can seem there are really no limits to human ingenuity. Create a problem? Find a solution. Cause a flood? Buy a boat and start fishing.

I’m Basia Cummings and this week on the Slow Newscast, we’re going West, to California, and the shores of a dying lake. 

Where catastrophe led to invention. And where, if you stand for long enough, you can watch a mistake turn into an opportunity and back again. 

We’re going to Salton Sea – California’s largest lake; 35 miles from north to south, and wider than the eye can see, with 110 miles of shoreline. And as incredible as it might sound, this lake was actually a giant mistake, created by a devastating accidental flood that lasted for two years.

Today it’s a place of bleached out ruins under a desert sun, where a slow-moving environmental disaster has been unfolding for more than a 100 years. And where a miracle in the desert might have turned out to be more of a mirage.

But it’s also where a forgotten community might be about to witness a new miracle; the promise of a white gold rush, where investors are hunting one of the most sought-after elements in the world…

“We need better, cheaper, more energy-dense batteries if we’re going to make electric cars ubiquitous and save the planet.”

News clip about lithium

Basia: Lithium. It’s an element that can change the way that we drive and the way that we pollute.

It’s a sort of environmental redemption story if you like; this blighted place in the desert now has a chance to reinvent itself and decisively move the needle on climate change for all of us. 

Darlene: It was just the place to go. You fished, you’d kayak, you went to the marina. The marina was a big place. They had fish fries every summer. You’d sit on a big old block ice block and see who melted the fastest, in the middle of the summer, the sun, it can definitely help you melt that ice cube but it was a big block of ice. 

Basia: That was a woman called Darlene. We’ll be hearing a lot more from her later. 

We’re working this week with reporter Miranda Green and producer Lucy Sherriff, who have both done a ton of environmental reporting and they’ve travelled four hours out of Los Angeles to the Salton Sea.

Basia: Hi Miranda.

Miranda: Hi Basia.

Basia: Tell me, where are you guys right now?

Miranda Green: Well I am standing here on the banks of the Salton Sea, the largest lake in California and if I look down about 5 football fields away, about a 20 minute walk from here is where the beginning of the Salton Sea water actually begins.

Basia: It really does look like some kind of other-worldly setting.

Miranda Green: It is, you know, this area used to be a vacation destination. It was a place where families came to swim in the watter and to fish. But what it looks like today is very, very different – the communities located pretty close to us here in Salton City, most of those old luxury family homes are abandoned, many of them have burned down in the heat or there were electrical fires; a lot of them have graffiti.

It’s actually a very famous place and a popular place for Instagrammers to come and take photos of what they call “ruin porn”, and for the people who live around here, many of them really just can’t afford to leave, or many come here because it’s really the only affordable place they can find to still live.


Miranda: Whoa. 

Lucy Sherriff: Oh, my God. 

Miranda: Wow. I feel like I’m on the bottom of an ocean floor. 

What do I even look at first? 

Lucy: There’s a whole, literally a shipwreck.

Miranda: This looks like an actual old house. Like, these actually look like these were structures. 

Lucy: You know, because they have the foundation. 

Miranda: See over there, too. And look, these are old electric lines. I mean, this literally used to be part of the neighborhood. This is an old chimney.

We just came over the dike that was created to make sure that the people still living in Bombay Beach, if the water ever does surge again, which I think at this point is rather unlikely, they get saved. And when you come over that top, I was just expecting to see the sea. And it was just all of these wooden structures on both sides of you. It’s almost impossible to tell where to look first. I think we need to go walk around a little bit. 

Lucy: It was like another graveyard but for houses. 

Miranda: There’s like nobody here. I don’t see a single human being. It’s almost like you’re I mean, I imagine that if Mars were to have an ocean on it, this is what it would feel like. It’s just… 

Lucy: Like desolate.

Miranda: And you can see there used to be animals here, right?  Like you’re starting to see it now. If you pick up this, look at that, it’s literally barnacle exoskeleton. This isn’t sand. It’s just all dead barnacles which just makes you think of how much ocean life, actually how much sea life actually thrived here at one point. That there were this many barnacles and fish. I can actually see like a fish bone… 

Lucy: And it’s bright white, like it’s actually hurting my eyes.

Miranda: It’s bright white, the sun has completely bleached it all. 

“Three-hundred-and-eighty-five square miles of water, formed by accident back in 1905, when the Colorado River…”

Archive audio about the Salton Sea

Miranda: It’s hard to believe this body of water, this beach we’re visiting, wasn’t supposed to be here.

The Salton Sea is so large it straddles two counties in California and used to be a hotspot for tourists between the 1930s and 50s. In its prime it pulled in 1.5 million people every year – more visitors than Yosemite national park. You can still see sun faded signs welcoming visitors to swim. People used to send postcards home from places like “North Shore Beach: The Glamour Capitol of Salton Sea”.

But late in the last century, things started to change here. Cut off from its source, the only water coming into the sea was from toxic runoff from nearby farms growing watermelon, capsicum and avocados. 

The water became so salty here that on one hot summer’s day in 1999, 7.8 million fish died, in the same day. Birds began dying too. Then the lake bed started to dry up and shrink and stink. 

“In the last three weeks, experts and volunteers have been rescuing as many birds as possible, including the rare California Brown Pelican…”

“Well I guess I could best describe ’96, you had birds getting sick and dying literally by the hundreds on a daily basis… that might have been an indication that the sea was not doing well.”

News clips about animals dying at the lake

Miranda: Today, the story of the Salton Sea is one of environmental injustice – the poorest suffer the most. 

The Coachella music festival happens 25 miles up the road – it’s America’s version of Glastonbury – complete with big time performances from celebrities like Beyonce and where Instagram influencers try to set the terms for how we live now, but none of that money or the glamour flows this way. 

The people who moved here, originally did so with dreams in their eyes of living in paradise. But as the sea now shrinks nearly a football field a year, pushing up dust from the exposed playa, residents can’t afford to just up and leave. They’ve had to stay and suffer the consequences.

And there’s nobody. There’s no campers. There’s no one laying out on the sand. It just feels like we’re not supposed to be here.

Yet, people do live here. Back from the empty lake shore amongst the abandoned wrecks of homes and empty plots of land that were never fully developed, there are small tract homes and mobile houses, where families reside trying to make the best of it.

“Hi, I’m here for Darlene…”

Miranda asking for Darlene

Miranda: Darlene Berber is a 40-year-old resident of the area. We heard about her childhood memories here at the start. She works as a clerk in the city of Westmorland, just a 15-minute drive from the south western edge of the Salton Sea. Darlene is inviting and has an infectious laugh. Speaking to her you can tell she cares deeply about the people she’s met here.

She moved to the Salton Sea from the city nearly a decade ago. She had hopes of a bright future for her kids, in an affordable location. 

But it didn’t take long for her to realise there was something off about this place.

Darlene: This has potential, it has such a potential without even realising everything else that was gonna come next. It just felt right. It felt like it could be home for a long time.

When I moved there were newer homes, a lot of investors had invested in that area. There was some investors that took off mid-project. I mean that was like a happy place, they have a yacht club for goodness sake on the north end. It was supposed to be the next up and coming, you know, Palm Springs. And I mean, you had actors and all kinds of people that poured money into it and then all of a sudden, it just stopped. 

It’s devastating. It’s almost like watching a slow fire that can’t be put out.

Miranda: And what is it like now?

Darlene: It’s dire.

Miranda: Dire. 

Darlene: I feel like this small piece of this game that everybody’s been playing. That’s how you feel you just feel like a pawn in this bigger picture. But you don’t know where direction you’re going. You’re just trying to survive.

Miranda: How would you describe the people that live there? What’s the community like?

Darlene: Very cautious. They’ve been promised a lot of things. Even if you go in – and we’re not aggressive or promising anything – people are just very cautious because of, like I said, the vandalisation and things that have come into the area because a lot of things happen in the desert, but people think they can get away with it. 

Miranda: Like what?

Darlene: Oh, there was a body found one time not by us, but by other people, you hear these stories. There’s random fires, you could hear gunshots every once in a while, but you never knew, it’s the middle of the desert you hear gunshots for multiple reasons. And it’s like life goes on. But there’s like no hope for the sea. Even though we’re hopeful, we keep trying, and then we watch the sea dry up.

Miranda: Salton Sea residents like Darlene have been begging the state and local government to fix the shrinking Salton Sea for decades. There are two proposals being fought over: one to pipe in sea water from the Sea of Cortez in Mexico to the south; and another, to move the remaining water in the Salton Sea into smaller pools and birding estuaries meant for dust suppression, essentially changing the way the sea as they know it looks.

Both requests will take millions of dollars to complete. After years of fighting the government has begun the first stage of what is called a ten year project, but even that plan has gotten tied up in red tape. There’s a likely lawsuit on the horizon.

In the meantime, residents have had to be creative with their ways of coping.

When the winds pick up here, which they do often, the exposed lake or playa, blows so much dust residents can’t leave their homes. Children, so impacted by asthma here, have to carry around inhalers. 

Many, like Darlene’s son, have to give up on playing sports all together.

The air pollution here is some of the worst in the state. It all adds up to gruesome living conditions for residents.

Miranda: When did you first realize that something was happening to the Salton Sea, or the Salton Sea was part of a bigger issue that was happening in the area?

Darlene: I noticed quite quickly that it only took me 20 minutes on a walk to walk from the house to the edge of the sea. And then it was starting to take like an hour. It was like, ‘oh, that’s odd’, you know, like, I thought maybe, ‘oh, it’s hot,’ you know, and I’m like, well, what’s going on? Because at that time, the marina was still open.

Miranda: And when was this, would you say?

Darlene: Oh, it was still 2012. 

Miranda: Okay, so not that long ago. Almost 10 years ago, the marina was still open 10 years ago. And so were people still using the water, playing in the water? 

Darlene: Yeah, fishing, people still kayak. 

Miranda: What happened to the fish?

Darlene: At first they said they didn’t know. They said it was some freak thing and they didn’t know and everybody kind of panicked. It was like everybody started wearing face masks, gloves. Then they started blaming the farmers and then they blamed the weather. It was a bunch of things that – different stories you were hearing. So then it was like nobody ever knew. 

I meant I visited a few times prior to making that decision to move. And it was just, it was beautiful. Like, the air was clear. It was windy, but you know, it wasn’t all these dust storms, my first dust storm was a very neat experience, to say the least. We had to pull over for like four hours. It was bad. 

Miranda: what does it look like when you’re…

Darlene: It looks like a movie, from the movie The Mummy when the sand storm comes in? It really does look like that. I didn’t know sand can build the wall that fast?

Miranda: What is the heat like here? 

Darlene: Ridiculous, you think you’re in hell. You could fry an egg on the asphalt, but the one that is actually paved. Yes, it’s bad, it gets to 125 degrees, it’s gotten all the way up to 128.

Miranda: Describe to me what the air pollution and air quality is like around there.

Darlene: When those wind storms pick up, it gets hazy, and you can’t see, you can’t even drive

Miranda: Can you tell me about the asthma in the area? What is that like?

Darlene: Horrific. I mean, you could go to the school and ask them to open up their medical kit and you probably got 100 inhalers in there, just for the kids that haven’t been cleared to carry it on hand. As a parent, I had to advocate for my son to be able to carry his inhaler. The first year he went to school here he had three ambulisations because he passed out on the field. And then seeing him blue when you get there, it’s hard.

Miranda: What percentage of the kids would you say have asthma? 

Darlene: About 80 per cent.

Miranda: That’s a huge number.

Darlene: You adapt. It’s a lot of adapting to your surroundings and making the best of what you have and people hustle. They make one trip a month to go grocery shopping. They don’t have the convenience of even going to the local liquor store or the Family Dollar. They don’t have fresh produce all the time. 

Miranda: How would you describe the reasons the people who live in that neighbourhood, you know what are the reasons for why they’re there?

Darlene: A lot of them it was just a great opportunity for them to provide a better life for their family. Like the newer homes that came in 2006, 2008, younger families like mine, took advantage of that opportunity. A lot of retired vets. I saw myself retiring and living in the Salton Sea and leaving a house for my kids in the Salton Sea. 

Miranda: That was the dream. 

Darlene: That was the dream. And now it’s just, it’s painful. 

“America is on the move again. Turning peril into possibility, crisis to opportunity, setbacks into strength… when I think climate change I think jobs. So folks, there’s no reason why American workers can’t lead the world in production of electric vehicles and batteries.”

US president Joe Biden making an announcement on climate change

Miranda: President Joe Biden was elected promising to turn the page on Trump’s climate denier era. Part of that pledge was to move the country towards renewable energy and create jobs in the process. The Salton Sea could be a prime testing ground for those goals. Thanks to the San Andreas fault line that runs right through it, the geothermal activity that plagues California with earthquakes also powers the renewable energy plants situated here. The geothermal plants that have been here for several decades power a portion of the state’s electric grid. But there’s more in the water than heat, there are elements, extremely sought after ones.  

Now prospectors are hoping to use these plants to tap into lithium – also known as white gold. 

Lithium is an integral ingredient to producing electric vehicle batteries, and it’s in high demand. So much so that Elon Musk, the eccentric CEO of Tesla who wants to colonise Mars, has turned his attention to it. And Warren Buffett the king of investors already has put his money to it.

The idea quickly gaining steam here is to turn the Salton Sea into Lithium Valley.

Miranda: So we’re meeting with Jim Turner, he is the Chief Operating Officer at Controlled Thermal Resources right now. We’re coming into a small town over here, on the Southern Part of the sea, and this is where our first stop is going to be. 

Controlled Thermal Resources is a renewable energy company setting its sites specifically on Lithium extraction in the Salton Sea, in this area within Imperial County or Imperial Valley as the locals like to call it. 

The company has just had a $4.46m injection of cash from the California Energy Commission to develop what the company hopes will be a wildly successful lithium industry here and one that is first of its kind, as Jim will explain to us.

Jim is an unassuming man in his early 70s, dressed in the businessman uniform of slacks and a button down. When we meet him, he is prepped for a potential  investor meeting that was just postponed last minute.

Jim Turner: So we’ll have the power plant at that end and then three quarters of it will be the lithium extraction plant. 

Miranda: How big is that going to be?

Jim: 20,000 tons of lithium compounds a year And so we’ll actually put a 30-inch pipe into the ground – we’ll drill a big hole, put a 30-inch pipe, it’ll be about 100 feet long. And then we’ll drill inside that 30-inch pipe, a smaller hole and I think we put 24-inch for about 1,000 feet down. And then we drill inside of that and we’ll put a 16-inch, probably down to 2,000 feet. And then we’ll drill inside of that, all the way down to 8,000 feet. These wells are like a piece of spaghetti except they’re heavy steel. And then the pudding, if you will, is when we flow brine out of it and if we get the right temperature brine, the right amount of brine, then we’re good.

Miranda: That’s when you know you’ve struck gold. 

Jim: Yeah, we’ve struck brine – salt water. 

Miranda: Jim explains that the lithium is present in the brine. The geothermal activity heats the brine, which is naturally occurring in the ground, to around 370 degrees.The brine is found in the geothermal reservoir in the region, which lays just under the Salton Sea. The reservoir stretches from about 4,000ft deep, essentially that’s a lot of brine. 

Jim: As the earth formed, the volcanic rock, the heat helped form some of these minerals into an ore down here. Well, with this hot brine, it’s dissolving, and this is going over millions of years, dissolves some of that lithium, but it also dissolved sodium, potassium, calcium, strontium, cesium, a whole host of things off the periodic table, if you remember your high school chemistry.

“There’s Hydrogen and Helium
Then Lithium, Beryllium
Boron, Carbon everywhere
Nitrogen all through the air.”

Clip of The Periodic Table Song

Jim: They’re all dissolved in the brine. And if you take them out of that brine, they have useful things you can do with them. 

Miranda: But what’s the attraction to Lithium? Perhaps we can ask investors and inventors like Elon Musk. Tech and auto giants like him are betting on a green, climate friendly future and they need cheaper car batteries to make electric vehicles affordable. That means lithium, a key component. Musk is even apparently buying up land in Nevada to mine his own supply.

Jim’s company is the first one in the world to be developing this technique of extracting lithium from this brine using green energy. Other lithium mining is far more intensive – and invasive. 

Jim: Lithium is a metal and it is the lightest metal known and it’s so light, that’s why the electric vehicle market wants batteries based on lithium, because it’s a lot lighter. Every electric car manufacturer in the world wants batteries made out of lithium. 

Aluminum is pretty light, lithium is really light. The neat thing about lithium is that electrically, it has fantastic charge attached to it, it’s a very small atom, it has electrons on it, but it can hold a lot of charge. And it’s so light, that’s why the electric vehicle market wants batteries based on lithium, because it’s a lot lighter.

Miranda: Now there are three ways to get hold of lithium. One, you mine for it. In Australia they’re plumbing the ground for this white gold – using, of course, huge diggers that run on diesel and leave colossal deep scars in the earth. Second, you head down to the Atacama Desert, in Chile. There they’re bringing up lukewarm brine and letting it dry out in evaporation ponds that stretch for 10s of 1000s of acres. They’re these giant patchwork liquid fields ranging from aquamarine blue to lime green in color. And the third, well that’s Jim’s process.

Miranda: This, in comparison, you just called it green lithium. 

Jim: Yeah, it’s kind of what we talk about it as, it’s green. 

Miranda: It’s green because it’s not utilising fossil fuels in order to create it. 

Jim: Yep. So we’re probably the one place right now that can do that. 

Miranda: In the globe

Jim: Yeah, in the globe.

Miranda: There’ve been a number of pie in the sky schemes in this area – and so it’s hard not to be skeptical about this project, which although it’s had a lot of money plowed in, hasn’t actually gotten off the ground yet. But Jim is confident it’s only a matter of time. And he’s not alone, Berkshire Hathaway Energy, Warren Buffet’s company, is also working to build a lithium extraction arm onto its ten geothermal plants around the Salton Sea. 

It recently got a $21 million paycheck from the government to try to make the project commercially viable. 

Now, $21m doesn’t sound like a lot, but consider what this is going to unlock. Government data estimates there will be 26 million electric vehicles sold by 2030, which means they’re going to need a lot of lithium… 

If the Salton Sea becomes a centre of US production you can easily see how it turns into a multi billion industry, rich enough to potentially revive this area.

And Jim thinks his company, and their bright idea, could mean a bright economic future for the residents here.

Jim: The electric vehicle market is just exploding. And there’s not enough lithium today to supply all those batteries. We’re talking to all the big automakers, they all want green lithium. We’re looking at billions of dollars. I mean, lithium is a big deal. And as soon as everybody realises that, demand is going to outstrip supply is probably going to push that price up.

The benefit for Imperial County is jobs. That’s a biggie. Property taxes is another biggie, and Imperial County is probably one of the highest unemployment rate counties in the United States, if not the highest. And so the county is, you know, right behind us, you know, kind of pushing us. 

Miranda: Billions of dollars. Could lithium, this light metal be the saviour of the Salton Sea? That would be a huge investment into a region whose workers are largely pickers, correctional officers and border patrol agents. Yes, we are only a 45-minute drive from the US/Mexico border.

Luis Olmedo: The demographics right now are majority Latino population, over 85 per cent. Often characterised as a disadvantaged population, communities of color, low income, over burdened by many sources of pollution, medically underserved, we’ve been dealing with air pollution and damage we’ve been dealing with, you know, heart disease, cancers, respiratory problems. 

Miranda: This is Luis Olmedo. He’s a native of Imperial Valley, the area in the south of the Salton Sea where the lithium is being explored and fighting for his community is in his blood. His father founded Comité Cívico del Valle, a local environmental justice nonprofit to try and find solutions to the health issues that impact the high agriculture worker population here. And we are meeting him in their offices. 

The Salton Sea community, Luis says, has been all but forgotten by their government officials.

Luis: We do have industries that have operated here with the promise that they would bring jobs, that there’ll be economic benefits and growth and opportunity.

If these businesses aren’t replenishing those resources that they’re taking, or they end up putting the communities in a deficit, and that’s what we see, we’re part of sort of those core regions that feed the world, feed the nation but yet somehow we look like a ghost town in many places in our communities. There’s neighbourhoods that don’t have access to water to water their parks, we shouldn’t be living in these conditions. What’s happened to this community – I really feel that it’s soul has been stripped away from it.

Miranda: How would you describe what it’s like now?

Luis: It looks quite abandoned, uninvested. And I think there’s a lot of potential. There’s just not enough investment that has gone into rehabilitating and repurposing a lot of these communities. 

Miranda: Luis is keen to highlight the area was “born” to be used for agriculture, and the region needs to be protected as it plays a vital role in feeding the country. It’s responsible for the majority of the crops grown in the U.S. during the winter because of the hot temperatures here. He goes so far as to call the Salton Sea a “huge liability”, both to people’s health, and the agricultural industry that the county is reliant on.

Luis: You don’t have to be a brain surgeon or rocket scientist, we know that over the last 100 years, 100-plus years, there has been toxic contaminants that have flowed, have deposited into the Salton Sea, in the seabed. They’re there, a lot of these chemicals are not even any longer even in the market, because they have proven to be so toxic, forever chemicals, they’re gonna be there. And so the last thing we want is to be exhuming these chemicals and lean and blow into the air. And it’s already happening. And so we’re in a race this needs to happen now. There’s no more, it’s not another 15 years to push this further, we have to fix these problems now.

Miranda: While Luis acknowledges residents’ concerns that the government’s embrace of lithium could just help the rich get richer, he is hopeful that it will create a new investment in a community that has been in a holding pattern, depleting year after year.  

To him, the Salton Sea should be approached as a separate entity from the lithium opportunities – that one doesn’t necessarily need to solve the other. And that residents don’t’ have to shut down the opportunity of a potential lithium valley to push action on the underlying environmental concerns there.

He says residents need both to survive.

Luis: When we say geothermal and lithium are here and they’re going to save the sea, that’s not going to happen. That’s not how it works, there’s a lot of misunderstanding as to when we talk that, ‘oh, they’re going to bring them in to save the Salton Sea’. We’ve got to bring him because this is where the resources are, this is where the water is, this is where the affordable land is. It’s all here. 

Miranda: So you’re essentially saying that you don’t think it’s wrong to think of the Salton Sea and its future in terms of its shrinking on the same page as the future of lithium, that they kind of exist separately, and why can’t they both exist and be fixed?

Luis: What we really need to do is we need to treat the ecosystem that’s there, there’s a shrinking sea, there’s exposed toxic dust that we need to make sure we keep on the ground. So we need to accelerate, wildlife projects, habitat projects,, shallow water, lagoons,

There has to be, I mean, enormous investments but two different things, you know, we can’t mix them because basically we’re doing is saying, ‘well, give me $1 to solve both instead of saying give me $1 solve this problem and give me $1 to help create this opportunity, two different things. And we shortchange ourselves when we combine it, because there’s two different things. 

Miranda: The important part, Luis insists, is not forgetting the community when the big companies come in. To make sure the winners aren’t solely the investors, but the region too. It’s an exciting opportunity he says, if done right.

Luis: I think we have a good opportunity to bring in a very powerful industry, but it just has to be done responsibly. And it has to be done in a way that does bring these benefits and economic investments into our neighborhoods

I think the potential’s there, a lot of people see the Salton Sea as a  decaying body of water, I see it as an opportunity. I see it as the next billion, multi billion dollar industry there.

Miranda: More jobs will obviously help the area’s residents But its not clear how that will ultimately help the environmental disaster that is the Salton Sea, and the residents stuck there, who want to see the area put back to its former glory days. 

Darlene took us back to Vista del Mar – the place she moved to all those years ago which was next to a sparkling blue sea, like its name advertised, but now lies dusty and forgotten with a dried lake bed at its doorstep. 

Today she lives in Westmoreland, that town a 15 minute drive from the sea. She couldn’t take living so far from basic necessities like a fire department and a hospital. Businesses around the sea have just continued to shutter.


Darlene and Miranda in car, driving through the community

Darlene: And this used to be a real estate office and a bike shop and now it’s dead. There’s no ATV [All Terrain Vehicle] rentals there. There used to be a little boutique right there that I used to buy some dresses and stuff. So this right here where the canopy is, that used to be where the pool was. I know the lady that lives there, she’s bedridden, so her daughter works at the market over there.

It’s all beautiful. You imagine, when I first moved out here, the shoreline was so much closer, it looked like, if you passed that gate, it looked like you were going to be able to run to the sea, no problem.

Miranda: How did you and other people feel when the marina closed? 

Darlene: I want to say it was the tipping point of realising that what we thought was a good thing was not. So this was my house.

Miranda: Is someone living there still, do you know?

Darlene: The owner goes through tenants like crazy.

Miranda: How long were you here for?

Darlene: Five years

Miranda: Does it have any memories for you?

Darlene: Yeah, bonfires with the kids and s’mores and just barbecue have the neighbours over.

Miranda: The rough and unpaved roads Darlene took us through were empty. Children’s bicycles, weightlifting sets, and boats – old and rusted – sat perched, left behind on the vacant concrete slabs. The residents who did still live there, all stayed inside. The houses were colourful, but the paint was peeling, and many of them were coated with a layer of desert dust. Darlene spoke of the town’s children, and took us to the local school, but we didn’t see any the entire time we were there.

Darlene: The youth here have tremendous support from the community. They want to see them thrive. They know that there’s a possibility that nobody’s ever going to do anything great for the Salton Sea area. They want to make these kids great so they can do something when they have the means. But like people, my generation, are kind of fearful because it’s like, ‘am I gonna be dead? Or am I gonna get to see something actually happen?’

I didn’t come out here to be homeless. I didn’t come out here to lose everything. And that’s just kind of that’s what it felt like.

Miranda: She took us to the edge of the Salton Sea in her old neighborhood near where the marina once stood. All that’s there now was an open beach and an old bar stand left vacant. Empty, vandalised homes stood around us. While the area to others might seem melancholy remnants of a bygone time, to Darlene it represented fond, wistful memories.

Darlene: Every place you live is going to meet its challenges. But why, when you have such a great thing, why would you let it die? 

“Here is where you could find a good life in the sun. Today, the Salton Riviera, beside the blue Salton Sea, is a place for you to take charge of your future, at the Salton Riviera, there is never a let up in progress…”

Archive audio advertising the Salton Sea

Miranda: We started with a question: can this dying lake – this miracle in the desert – have a green future? 

And even after dwelling on the ill-fated past, and the bleak present, yes, there is one version of a hopeful future that does seem possible. You can almost picture dying Salton Sea reinvented as a burgeoning Lithium Valley helping to change how we drive, and how we pollute.

Lithium can be good for the planet, for politicians like President Biden, for industrial visionaries like Elon Musk and old-school capitalists like Warren Buffett. But it also has to be good for people like Darlene and Luis and their families and their communities. And a change of fortunes won’t happen by accident, it has to be intentional. Who will make sure the environmental impacts are fixed and the people who live here aren’t left behind once more?

Because if there’s one thing we know about a gold rush, there are generally more losers than winners.

Darlene: It’s just they’re still living people, human beings there. What about the people? It seems like people are just, the ones who can make a difference,they don’t. And when they do, it’s usually because it’s the money move. And, you know, it’s always a money move Where’s the money at? 

Miranda: What do you see looking out?

Darlene: I see beauty. I see my childhood. I see boats. I see my kids running back showing me things from the ocean. that’s what I see when I look at it.

Next in this file

Miracle in the desert

Miracle in the desert

The hunt for lithium and environmental justice on the shores of a dying lake

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