World Water Week: Checking in on Arizona

Silver Bell Mine. Fun fact: those lakes are entirely poison

If you live in the crowded east, or in the Great Lakes/Rust Belt area of the Upper Midwest, you might not get a sense of how vast this country truly is, and how the West expands to dimensions that swallow up our horizons. Because of that, and maybe paradoxically, we don’t have a sense of the vastness of damage done in the name of the extraction industries.

And that’s one of the themes of this year’s World Water Week, which is focusing on “ecosystems and human development”, two fields that don’t always go hand-in-hand. Indeed, human development through most of our history, accelerated dramatically in the last 500 years, has been about ecosystem destruction, or at least alteration based on our needs or whims.

As our so many things upon which we can frown, this is especially true in Arizona.

Arizona is a wild and deeply inhospitable land, an area where the ground bakes and the earth underneath it, ancient and often a fulcrum of geologic drama, is rich with minerals. Mining was what drove Arizona’s economy since it was a wild outpost, and it was a wild outpost until fairly recently, not becoming an official state until 1912. For historical reference, that’s the year John McCain’s mom was born (she’s still alive, which now seems tragic). So the Senator until two days ago has a one-generation linkage to Arizona’s statehood.

And really, of all our non-Confederate states, Arizona has had the most contentious relationship with the federal government. Even today, they Arizona fighta its neighbors and the feds about the Colorado Compact, taking the idea that states exist in essential conflict very seriously.

It’s been a relationship of anger mixed with hypocritical ingratitude. Arizona wouldn’t exist without massive federal assistance in diverting water for irrigation and drinking, which made parts of Barry Goldwater’s libertarianism ethically untenable.

Of course, there had always been tensions between the territory and the feds, between those who wanted the land to be open and those who wanted to close it off to private interests. More often than not, the government sided with those who wanted to close it off, who wanted to parcel the riches of the state to those who were rich enough to become even richer. Back then, the wealthy and powerful got their way.

You may see where this is heading.

In this month’s Harper’s, Mort Rosenblum (writer) and Samuel James (photographer) deliver a powerful essay about the rush to expand new copper mines in the wilds of the Arizona desert, which is becoming less and less remote as settlements encroach on the blasted land. It’s a story of how the short-term needs of industry are balanced, or not, against the long-term health of the ecosystem, of which we forget we’re a part.

copper mine arizona drought

Housing developments on the edge of the mine. Image from Harper’s (Samuel James)

In the story, we learn that certain mining companies, both domestic and foreign (increasingly the latter), are working to step up their activities, expanding mining complexes that are already bigger in some cases than all of Manhattan. They are helped, as is often the case, by politicians. The article was obviously written before this week, and de mortus nil nisi bonum an all that, but:

In 1955, Dwight Eisenhower signed an executive order protecting Oak Flat from copper mining. But in 2005, Jeff Flake, then an Arizona congressman with ties to mining—­he had previously lobbied for a Rio Tinto mine in Namibia—joined Arizona colleagues in putting forward a land-swap bill: 2,400 acres of land owned by the Forest Service, including Oak Flat, would go to Resolution in exchange for land elsewhere in the state. Later, Flake and John ­McCain pressed for the swap in the Senate, and despite the Obama Administration’s resistance, it was added as a rider to the National Defense Authorization Act for 2015. Pending final approval from various agencies under the National Environmental Policy Act, the land will become Resolution’s private property.

That approval is pending. This is despite objections from virtually every relevant agency before they were gutted in favor of industry. It’s despite the fact that the mine will be ruinious to Native burial grounds and sacred sites (or maybe it’s partly because of it).

We know that most Western politicians are, despite their stated objection to the government, are carrying on the tradition of ceding public land to the wealthy and powerful. It’s just that now the rich and powerful wrap themselves up as conscientious objectors for freedom, inspiring the masses of disaffected and poor Westerners. That the freedom for which they are fighting is the freedom to get even richer while the poor and disaffected stay the same is just fine print.

Of course, water doesn’t care about politics. It just obeys physics and climate. And the project will impact both.

Back in 2012, things looked bleaker for Rosemont. The US Bureau of Land Management’s Tucson office, which oversees a nearby watershed, issued a chilling assessment of the company’s plan, writing, “What is certain is that the pit would cause a profound lowering of the regional aquifer.” A steep new underground gradient would be created, pulling groundwater from every direction, and Rosemont would be constantly pumping water out of the pit. Even after the mine closed, water would keep flowing into the pit and evaporating under the Arizona sun. The impacts to groundwater, the BLM assessment continued, “are likely to cause the slow but eventual collapse of the aquatic ecosystem,” a kind of collapse that is “irreversible, cannot be mitigated and will last for centuries.”

That’s not really good. But what are you going to do? The truth is that copper really is a vital part of our economy, and the devices around which we’ve based our lives couldn’t exist without it. And man, Arizona is rich in copper. The truth is, to carry on our current lifestyles and comforts, we need mining. We need copper.

But we also need balance, and that might come from having to give up some of our comforts. Because things actually get WAY more uncomfortable without water. By like, a million times. So that’s what is meant by development and ecosystem. We shouldn’t think the former is an unmitigated good, and the latter an incidental nicety.

That can seem abstract sometimes, especially in the endless vistas of the West. A mining complex the size of Manhattan can be swallowed up. But it isn’t invisible. It is sucking up water and making toxic what it spits out and altering the ecosystem for hundreds of miles. And meanwhile, our houses creep ever closer, sticking straws in the same poison puddles, because you just can’t stop progress.

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