Arizona mining impacts on New Mexico

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I bring this up in the concept of peak water, in that communities across the West are dealing with drought, in addition to the question of water supplies. The effects are actually being felt throughout the southern half of the U.S. Take, for example, this article in USA Today:

Severe dryness across California and Arizona has spread into other Western states. On the Colorado River, the water supply for 30 million people in seven states and Mexico, the Lake Powell and Lake Mead reservoirs are only half-full and unlikely to recover for years. In Los Angeles County, on track for a record dry year with 21% of normal rain downtown since last summer, fire officials are threatening to cancel Fourth of July fireworks if conditions worsen. On Wednesday, Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa urged residents to voluntarily cut water use 10%, the city’s first such call since the 1990s.

What does that have to do with Arizona, or, for that matter, New Mexico? According to the Arizona Republic:

After a long decline punctuated by mine closures and layoffs, Arizona’s copper industry is making an unprecedented comeback.

Soaring metals prices have companies scrambling to open mines and expand existing ones to take advantage of the boom.

But mines consume huge amounts of water and could put tremendous pressure on the state’s limited water supply.

Water regulators, county planners and environmentalists are increasingly worried about the effect on aquifers, already suffering from decades of overpumping.

At least seven new mining projects are being planned around the state, and that doesn’t count the ongoing expansion of existing mines. The new projects will require 40,000 acre-feet of water annually. That’s enough to support a city larger than Tempe.

That’s enough water for 200,000 people each year, and, in an area already plagued by water shortages, will be a tough pill to swallow.

But, we still haven’t answered the question of New Mexico’s involvement. Well, the answer is simple, really: the Gila River.

If you recall, at the end of the last legislative session Gov. Bill Richardson line-item-vetoed a provision to fund a study of the Gila and San Francisco rivers. The study was tied to the Arizona Water Settlements Act, which provides New Mexico with 14,000 acre-feet of water per year from the Gila River. Right now, that water goes to Arizona.

At Silver City’s Town Council meeting on Tuesday, Mayor James Marshall reiterated a desire to see the studies move forward.

“The only way to protect that river is to study it and argue with facts that are grounded in science,” Marshall said.

He also told the council that the Interstate Stream Commission is still working to develop support for the studies, and that the Sandia Modeling team is also making additional progress on that front.

14,000 acre-feet of water is 1/3 of what the seven Arizona mines will be using, and I imagine Arizonans would be happy to keep getting that water. That threat has always been present, but the thought that Arizona cities will now be 40,000 acre-feet drier than before makes the threat that much more real.

Bonus: check out this Alibi story on Albuquerque’s shift away from aquifer water for drinking and other household use to San Juan/Chama River water ((Hat tip to John for the link)). The story is especially interesting in the context of last year’s news that the Mangas aquifer, which supplies the drinking water for much of Grant County, has a huge amount of water in it, and is continuously replenished by the Gila River. Turns out people used to say the same thing about Albuquerque’s aquifer:

This boundless body of water was going to support our city for generations to come. And it would be another decade before the dream was proven false.

The catalyst for our shift in understanding came in 1992 with a study published by hydrologists J.W. Hawley and C.S. Haase entitled A Hydrological Framework of the Northern Albuquerque Basin . The study showed that the reservoir beneath Albuquerque was not, after all, one giant pod filled with water, but a fractured network of water-filled vessels, some easier to reach than others, some with impure water.

Additionally, prior to the study the Rio Grande and the aquifer were thought to be directly linked. The city purchased San Juan-Chama water in 1963 with the intention of using the river water as an offset to Albuquerque’s groundwater pumping. The San Juan-Chama water was diverted to the Rio Grande, and the theory went that the extra water from the river would seep back into the aquifer, replenishing much of what the city pumped out every year. The Hawley and Haase study, however, showed the aquifer-river connection was somewhat weak. Although the river still replenished the aquifer, it did so at a much slower rate than previously thought.

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