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If Hobbs is serious about protecting groundwater, she must work to close the mining loophole

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If Hobbs is serious about protecting groundwater, she must work to close the mining loophole

Feb 12, 2024 | 12:28 pm ET
By Russ McSpadden
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If Hobbs is serious about protecting groundwater, she must work to close the mining loophole
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Protesters rally against the proposed Resolution Copper Mine east of Phoenix in the Tonto National Forest. Photo by Jamie Cochran | Cronkite News

In her first State of the State address just over a year ago, Gov. Katie Hobbs was unequivocal about her commitment to tackling one of the state’s greatest challenges: our dwindling water supply.

“Our groundwater should be used to support Arizonans, not foreign business interests,” she said in that speech, referring to the Saudi Arabian conglomerate Fondomonte. Over the past few years, Fondomonte has been pumping unlimited amounts of groundwater in La Paz County for alfalfa crops that it ships to feed cows on the other side of the earth.

Though the Hobbs administration has already canceled one of Fondomonte’s four leases and says it won’t renew the others when they’re up this month, the problem doesn’t end with Saudi agriculture.

It’s also mining companies that take advantage of loopholes in the state’s water laws to maximize profit at the expense of Arizonans — including mining giants Rio Tinto and BHP.

Because of intense pressure from lobbyists, when lawmakers adopted the much-heralded Arizona Groundwater Management Act in 1980 they exempted mines from groundwater regulation, even when located in Active Management Areas — state-designated areas where groundwater pumping is controlled. That means that mines can pump unlimited amounts of water without paying the state a dime.

This exemption was controversial in 1980. Today it’s existentially dangerous.

Resolution Copper, a subsidiary of Rio Tinto and BHP, is a perfect example. Their proposed mine at Oak Flat — about 70 miles east of Phoenix in the Tonto National Forest and within the Phoenix Active Management Area — would pump 250 billion gallons of desert groundwater over the life of the project. 

That’s 17 million gallons of water every day for four decades.

Under current water prices, that equates to $404 million worth of groundwater that Resolution Copper will get for free. Arizona won’t see a cent for it. And it’s more than likely that the copper ore from Oak Flat will be exported to China for smelting, again depriving local communities of economic benefit. 

This limitless pumping would happen even as the megadrought that has plagued the American Southwest for the past two decades is likely to worsen, straining the Colorado and Gila rivers even more and making us all more reliant on groundwater aquifers.

If left intact, the mining loophole will facilitate construction of Resolution’s massive mine. The extreme water pumping from the East Salt River Valley will lead to groundwater depletion and subsidence, threatening to deplete wells and damage infrastructure.

The Center for Biological Diversity, where I work, has been fighting for decades to stop this mine, and Canadian mining company Hudbay’s disastrous plan to mine for copper in the Santa Rita Mountains south of Tucson (in the Tucson Active Management Area). 

Both projects would devastate surrounding fragile ecosystems, pushing endangered species like the Mexican spotted owl closer to the brink of extinction. They would also destroy sacred tribal lands and gulp down massive amounts of water when other users are being asked to conserve.

Handing mines unlimited access to Arizona’s precious desert groundwater would be an injustice to Arizona’s Tribes and every resident of this state.

Fortunately, Hobbs has the vision and courage to fight for a secure water future for Arizona. It is time for her to work with legislators to close the mining loophole in Arizona water law and subject mines to the same groundwater pumping limits that apply to other entities within the state’s Active Management Areas.

We’re hopeful she will work to block Resolution and other terrible mining projects like Hudbay’s. At the very least, it’s time for mining giants to pay for the water they use just like the rest of us.