Photograph of Thacker Pond by Max Wilbert
Lithium: Mining Mountains of Water
by Rebecca Wildbear
Nearly a third of the world lacks safe drinking water, though I have rarely been without. In a red rock canyon in Utah, backpacking on a week-long wilderness training in my mid-twenties, it was challenging to find water. Eight of us often scouted for hours. Some days all we could find to drink was muddy water. We collected rain water and were grateful when we found a spring.
Now water is scarce, and the demand for it is growing. Globally, water use has risen at more than twice the rate of population growth and is still increasing. Ninety percent of water used by humans is used by industry and agriculture, and when groundwater is overused, lakes, streams and rivers dry up, destroying ecosystems and species, harming human health, and impacting food security. Life on Earth will not survive without water.
In the Navajo Nation in Arizona, Utah, and New Mexico, a third of houses lack running water, and in some towns, it is ninety percent. Peabody Energy Corporation, the largest coal producer and a Fortune 500 company, pulled so much water from the Navajo aquifer before closing its mining operation that many wells and springs have run dry. Residents now have to drive 17 miles to wait in line for an hour at a communal well, just to get their drinking water.
Worldwide, the majority of drinkable water comes from underground reservoirs called aquifers. Aquifers feed streams, lakes, and rivers, but their waters are finite. Large aquifers exist beneath deserts, but these were created eons ago in wetter times. Expert hydrologists say that like oil, once the “fossil” waters of ancient reservoirs are mined, they are gone forever.
Peabody’s Black Mesa Mine extracted, pulverized, and mixed coal with water drawn from the Navajo aquifer to form a slurry. This was sent along a 273-mile-long pipeline to the Mojave Generating Station in Laughlin, Nevada, to power Los Angeles. Every year, the mine extracted 1.4 billion gallons (4,000+ acre feet) of water from the aquifer, an estimated 45 billion gallons (130,000+ acre feet) in all.
Pumping out an aquifer draws down the water level and empties it forever. Water quality deteriorates and springs and soil dry out. Agricultural irrigation and oil and coal extraction are the biggest users of waters from aquifers in the U.S. Some predict that the Ogallala aquifer, once stretching beneath five mid-western states, may be able to replenish after six thousand years of rainfall.
Rain is the most accurate measure of available water in a region, yet over-pumping water beyond its capacity to refill is widespread in the western U.S. and around the world. The Middle East ran out of water years ago—it was the first major region in the world to do so. Studies predict that two thirds of the world’s population are at risk of water shortages by 2025. As ground water levels fall, lakes, rivers, and streams are depleted, and the land, fish, trees, and animals die, leaving a barren desert.
Mining in the Great Basin
The skyrocketing demand for lithium, one of the minerals needed for the production of electric cars, is based on the misperception that green technology helps the planet. Yet, as Argentine professor of thermodynamics and lithium mining expert Dr. Daniel Galli said at a scientific meeting, lithium mining is “really mining mountains of water.” Lithium Americas plans to pump massive amounts of water—up to 1.7 billion gallons (5,200 acre feet) annually—from an aquifer in the Quinn River Valley in Nevada’s Great Basin, the largest desert in the United States.
Thacker Pass, the site of the proposed 1.3 billion dollar open-pit lithium mine, would pump 1,200 acre feet more water per year than Peabody Energy Corporation extracted from the Navajo aquifer. Yet, the Quinn River aquifer is already over-allocated by fifty percent, and more than 10 billion gallons (30,000 acre feet) per year. Nevada is one of the driest states in the nation, and Thacker Pass is only the first of many proposed lithium mines in the state. Multiple active placer claims (7,996) have been located in 18 different hydrographic basins.
Deceit about water fuels these mines. Lithium Americas’ environmental impact assessment is grossly inaccurate, according to hydrologist Dr. Erick Powell. By classifying year-round creeks as “ephemeral” and underreporting the flow rate of 14 springs, Lithium Americas is claiming there is less water in the area than there actually is. This masks the real effects the mine would have—drying up hundreds of square miles of land, drawing down the groundwater level, sucking water from neighboring aquifers—all while claiming its operations would have no effect.
Peabody Energy Corporation’s impact assessment similarly misrepresented how their withdrawals would harm the Navajo aquifer. Peabody Energy used a flawed method to measure the withdrawals, according to former National Science Research Fellow Daniel Higgins. Now Navajo Nation wells require drilling down 2,000–3,000 feet, and the water is depressurized and slow to flow to the surface.
Thacker Pass lithium mine would pump groundwater at a disturbing rate, up to 3,250 gallons per minute. Once used, wastewater would contaminate local groundwater with dangerous heavy metals, including a “plume” of antimony that would last at least 300 years. Lithium Americas plans to dig the mine deeper than the groundwater level and keep it dry by continuously pumping water out, but when the pumping stops, groundwater would seep back in, picking up the toxins.
It hurts me to think about this. I imagine water being rapidly extracted from my own body, my bloodstream poisoned. The best tasting water rises to the surface when it is ready, after gestating as long as it likes in the dark Earth. Springs are sacred. When I feel welcome, I place my lips on the earthy surface and fill my mouth with their sweet flavor and vibrant texture.
Mining in the Atacama Desert
Thirteen thousand feet above sea level, the indigenous Atacamas people live in the Atacama Desert, the most arid desert in the world and the driest place on Earth. For millennia, they have used their scarce supply of water and sparse terrain carefully. Their laws and spirituality have always been intertwined with the health and well-being of the land and water. Living in mud-brick homes, pack animals, llama and alpaca, provide them with meat, hide, and wool.
But lithium lies beneath their ancestral land. Since 1980, mining companies have made billions in the Salar de Atacama region in Chile, where lithium mining now consumes sixty-five percent of the water. Some local communities need to have water driven in, and other villagers have been forced to abandon their settlements. There is no longer enough water to graze their animals. Beautiful lagoons hundreds of flamingos call home have gone dry. The birds have disappeared, and the ground is hard and cracked.
In addition to the Thacker Pass mine proposal, Lithium Americas has a mine in the Atacama Desert, a joint Canadian-Chilean venture named Minera Exar in the Cauchari-Olaroz basin in Jujuy, Argentina. Digging for lithium began in Jujuy in 2015, and there is already irreversible damage, according to a 2018 hydrology report. Watering holes have gone dry, and indigenous leaders are scared that soon there will be nothing left.
Even more water is needed to mine the traces of lithium found in brine than in an open-pit mine. At the Sales de Jujuy plant, the wells pump at a rate of more than two million gallons per day, even though this region receives less than four inches of rain a year. Pumping water from brine aquifers decreases the amount of fresh groundwater. Freshwater refills the spaces emptied by brine pumping and is irreversibly mixed with brine and salinized.
The Sanctity of Water
As a river guide, I live close to water. Swallowed by its wild beauty, I am restored to a healthier existence. Far from roads, cars, and cities, I watch water swirl around rocks or ripple over sand. I merge with its generous flow, floating through mountains, forest, or canyon. Rivers teach me how to listen to the currents—whether they cascade in a playful bubble, swell in a loud rush, or ebb in a gentle silence—for clues about what lies ahead.
The indigenous Atacamas peoples understand that water is sacred and have purposefully protected it for centuries. Rather than looking at how nature can be used, our culture needs to emulate the Atacamas peoples and develop the capacity to consider its obligations around water. Instead of electric cars, what we need is an ethical approach to our relationship with the land. Honoring the rights of water, species, and ecosystems is the foundation of a sustainable society. Decisions can be made based on knowledge of the land, weather patterns, and messages from nature.
For millennia, indigenous peoples have perceived water, animals, and mountains as sentient. If humans today could recognize their intelligence, perhaps they would understand that underground reservoirs have a value and purpose, beyond humans. When I enter a cave, I am walking into a living being. My eyes adjust to the dark. Pressing my hand against the wall, I steady myself on the uneven ground, hidden by varying amounts of water. Pausing, I listen to a soft dripping noise, echoing like a heartbeat as dew slides off the rocks. I can almost hear the cave breathing.
The life-giving waters of aquifers keep everything alive, but live unseen under the ground. As a soul guide, I invite people to be nourished by the visions of their dreams, a parallel world that is also seemingly invisible. Our dominant culture dismisses the value of these perceptions, just as it usurps water by disregarding natural cycles. Yet to create a sustainable world, humans need to be able to listen to nature and their dreams. The depths of our souls are inextricably linked to the ancient waters that flow underground. Dreams arise like springs from an aquifer, seeding our visionary potential, expanding our consciousness, and revealing other ways to live, radically different than empire.
I set my backpack down on a high sandstone cliff overlooking a large watering hole. Ten feet below the hole, the red rock canyon drops into a much larger pool. My friend hikes down to it, filling her cookpot with water. She balances it atop her head on the way up, moving her hips to keep the pot steady. Arriving back, she pours the water into the smaller hole from which we drink and returns to the large pool to gather more.
Women in all societies have carried water throughout history. In many rural communities, they still spend much of the day gathering it. Sherri Mitchell of the Penobscot Nation calls women “the water bearers of the Universe.” The cycles in a woman’s body move in relation with the Earth’s tides, guiding them to nourish and protect the waters of Earth. We all need to become water bearers now.
Indigenous peoples, who have always been the Earth’s greatest defenders, protect eighty percent of global diversity, even though they comprise less than five percent of the world’s population. They understand water is sacred, and the world’s groundwater systems must be defended. For six years, indigenous peoples have been fighting to prevent lithium mining in the Salinas Grandes salt flats, in Jujuy, Argentina. Five hundred indigenous people camped on the land with signs: “No to lithium. Yes, to water and life in our territories.”
In February 2021, President Biden signed executive orders supporting the domestic mining of “critical” minerals like lithium, but two lawsuits, one by five Nevada-based conservation groups, have been filed against the Bureau of Land Management for approving the Thacker Pass lithium mine. Environmentalists Max Wilbert and Will Falk are organizing a protest to protect Thacker Pass. Local residents, including Northern Paiute and Western Shoshone peoples, are speaking out, fighting to protect their land and water.
We can see when a river runs dry, but most people are not aware of the invisible, slow-burning disaster happening under the ground. Some say those who oppose lithium mining should give up cell phones. If that is true, perhaps those who favor mines should give up drinking water. Protecting water needs to be at the center of any plan for a sustainable future.
The “fossil water” found in deserts should be used only in emergency, certainly not for mining. Sickened by corporate water grabbing, I support those trying to stop Thacker Pass Lithium mine and aim to join them. The aquifers there have nurtured so many for so long—eagles, pronghorn antelope, mule deer, old-growth sagebrush, hawks, falcons, sage-grouse, and Lahontan cutthroat trout. I pray these sacred wombs of the Earth can live on to nourish all of life.