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Mines exporting to China threaten Arizona’s water

By: Gary Nabhan / Arizona Capitol Times

This last year, the Arizona government repeatedly received favorable national attention for positive conservation actions: protecting the state’s scarce groundwater supplies from foreign-owned farms that repeatedly violated laws or over-pumped declining aquifers.

Last December, Gov. Katie Hobbs was lauded for terminating the leases of state-owned land, where Fondomonte Arizona had for years pumped groundwater in excess of the terms of its contract. Fondomente is a subsidiary of Saudi dairy giant Almarai Co. The governor also announced that she will not renew three other leases to foreign agriculture interests. Attorney General Kris Mayes revoked permits to those foreign-owned enterprises for drilling additional wells.

Similar actions have been proposed to curb groundwater use by an Emirati (UAE) agribusiness, Al Dahra. Its neighbors estimate that it is using as much as 15,000-to-16,000-acre feet a year to grow alfalfa. At least four other states may be following suit. California, Texas, Utah, and Washington legislatures are considering bills to limit irrigation use by transnational companies exporting crops produced with excessive amounts of fossil water.

And yet, these actions raise issues regarding their incongruities with other Arizona and federal policies that aspire to the highest public good derived from scarce water resources. These inconsistencies may ultimately have far more dire consequences for Arizona’s water future than the continued pumping by Arab-owned farms that was curbed this fall. To protect Arizona’s water reserves for future generations, Hobbs must find ways to crack down on foreign-owned mining companies as well. In Santa Cruz County, where I live, South32, an Australian-based spin-off of BP, has been granted the first fast track for special permitting of environmental projects in the United States. That Fast41 designation was dubiously granted, given that its low-grade manganese barely reached the cutoff line required for an ore to be designated as a “strategic material” for U.S. security.

But if South32’s plans proceed as it has earlier proposed, it might possibly consume hundreds of millions of Arizona groundwater annually. The exact volume of water that its mines will use is not yet known, but it has been granted two permits by ADEQ to acquire, treat and discharge 6.48 million gallons of water per day. That volume of water use — even if a sizeable portion of it is recycled – could exceed 2 billion gallons a year, more than enjoyed by any other user in the county. That is many times the amount of water consumed by county residents, and far more water than what the Fondomonte and Al Dahra farms have used over each of the last few years.

Many are alarmed that South32’s CEO Graham Kerr has repeatedly noted in the press that much of its current annual extraction of 2 million tons of manganese is destined for China, not for the U.S. While South32 claims to be actively looking for prospective American buyers, those aspirations fall far short of an air-tight guarantee that the ore will largely or exclusively be used for the strategic benefit of the United States.

So, what is involved in giving a security-related fast track to an Australian-based multinational whose major purchaser of manganese is likely to be China, a foe of the United States? For five years, U.S. taxpayers have been subsidizing this potential plunder by paying for thousands of hours of professional staff time at county, state, and federal offices to review and correct every sloppy element of South32’s 80-year plan. If all permits it has requested are granted, South32 LTD will have put its hands on an enormous portion of Santa Cruz County’s water reserves. It may also risk exposing the aquifer to toxic chemicals – should a combination of floods, fires or accidents ever affect the county’s groundwater and surface water over the next eight decades.

The real issue isn’t foreign demands for commodities that use Arizona’s scarce water. It is that large multi-national companies are receiving special, subsidized treatment to extract scarce resources that could be better used by current and future Arizonans. Ironically, there is no requirement in the 1980 Arizona water code that mining companies must prove their wells aren’t affecting the water quality or quantity of wells in the same aquifer. If the governor wants to protect Arizona’s water reserves and economy, she must act quickly to close this loophole. Merely to deal with Arizona’s current water crisis, our state needs to clamp down on water extraction not just by foreign-owned farms, but by multinational mines as well.


Gary Nabhan is an award-winning agricultural and conservation scientist based in Patagonia, Arizona, and co-author of a recent book on desert-adapted crops, Agave Spirits.   

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