CRITICAL MINERALSIs the Southwest Too Dry for a Mining Boom?

By Wyatt Myskow

Published 31 January 2024

Critical minerals for the clean energy transition are abundant in the Southwest, but the dozens of mines proposed to access them will require vast sums of water, something in short supply in the desert.

One by one, leaders from across Arizona gave speeches touting the importance of water conservation at Phoenix City Hall as they celebrated the announcement of voluntary agreements to preserve the declining Colorado River in November.

When Tao Etpison took the mic, his speech echoed those who went before him. Water is the lifeblood of existence, and users of the Colorado River Basin were one step closer to preserving the system that has helped life in the Southwest flourish. Then he brought up the elephant in the room: Arizona’s groundwater protection was lacking, and mining companies were looking to take advantage.

“The two largest foreign-based multinational mining companies in the world intend to construct the massive Resolution Copper Mine near Superior,” said Etpison, the vice chairman of the San Carlos Apache Tribe. “This mine will use, at a minimum, 775,000 acre feet of groundwater, and once the groundwater is gone, it’s gone. How can this be in the best interests of Arizona?”

The question is one the state and the Southwest must answer. Mine claims for the elements critical to the clean energy transition are piling up from Arizona to Nevada to Utah. Lithium is needed for the batteries to store wind and solar energy and power electric vehicles. Copper provides the wiring to send electricity where it will be needed to satisfy exploding demand. But water stands in the way of the transition, with drought playing into nearly every proposed renewable energy development, from solar to hydropower, as the Southwest debates what to do with every drop it has left as the region undergoes aridification due to climate change and decades of overconsumption. 

Mining opponents argue the proposals could impact endangered species, tribal rights, air quality and, of course, water—both its quantity and its quality. Across the Southwest, the story of 2023 was how water users, from farmers in the Colorado River Basin to fast-growing cities in the Phoenix metropolitan area, needed to use less water, forcing changes to residential development and agricultural practices. But left out of that conversation, natural resource experts and environmentalists say, is the water used by mining operations and the amount that would be consumed by new mines.