Mining proposal threatens Arizona town's water supply

Report outlines risks that mine will deplete aquifer and contaminate groundwater.

 

Just eighteen miles north of the Mexican border, the town of Patagonia, Arizona sits cradled by 4,000 foot high mountains– a high desert oasis of oak and piñon pines, home to the rare ocelot and jaguar. But scattered throughout those mountains are abandoned mine shafts and tailings from the town’s not-too-distant past.

Small-scale miners arrived here in the 1860s, eager to sink their picks and shovels into the mineral deposits that lace the surrounding peaks and valleys. A century later, mining came to an end and the town “moved on,” says long-time Patagonia resident Wendy Russell. Its main drag - all of two blocks long – is lined with small businesses, which rely mostly on tourists who come to bike on quiet mountain roads, birdwatch, and hike the nearby Arizona Trail.

Still, more than 145 million ounces of silver and 7.2 billion pounds of manganese lie buried beneath the hills, and plans are underway that could re-start Patagonia’s old industry on an even larger scale: an open pit mine 4,000 feet wide and 1,500 feet deep, just six miles southeast of town. Wildcat Silver, a Canadian mining company, is behind the proposed Hermosa Mine, which supporters says will bring 300 jobs and a boost to the local economy.

Plans are underway for a large open pit silver mine in the Patagonia Mountains of southeast Arizona. Photograph from Flickr user Patrick Alexander
But the site also lies within the watershed that supplies Patagonia’s drinking water, and that has Russell and many other locals worried. In 2011 she helped found the Patagonia Area Resource Alliance, a group devoted to stopping Hermosa, which opponents fear will deplete the town’s water supply and contaminate the groundwater with acid mine drainage. From her house, Russell can see the town’s municipal water wells, which have dropped 18 feet since 2008, hammered by drought that has lasted more than a decade. Last year, with water levels at an all time low, the town manager recommended residents begin restricting their water use.

Russell pointed out that Hermosa would eclipse those efforts. “We could save all the water in the world and it would still just be a drop in the bucket compared to what this huge mine would consume,” she says.

 Those fears were confirmed in a recent report released by Earthworks, an environmental nonprofit, which found that the mine would use between 670 million and 1.2 billion gallons of water every year – 28 to 53 times more water than the entire town of Patagonia currently consumes. Even after the mine closes, a lake containing billions of gallons of groundwater will form in the abandoned pit, increasing depletion further as water evaporates off the surface. “You’re creating perpetual water loss that will persist well beyond the mine,” says Pete Dronkers an Earthworks staffer who helped prepare the report.

Greg Lucero, Wildcat’s vice-president of sustainable development, criticized the report for “misusing data to distort the truth.” In an op-ed published in the Weekly Bulletin, a local paper, he claims there is no connection between the source of Patagonia’s water supply and Hermosa’s since they are two separate aquifers

But during a March 2014 Forest Service public meeting, Greg Olsen, a Forest Service hydrologist, was asked if it were true that there is no connection between the aquifer that would supply water to the mine and the aquifer that supplies Patagonia’s water.

“The whole watershed is connected one way or another,” Olsen said. “There is no ‘steel wall’ between the two.” 

Lucero said the company is committed to developing a long-term water conservation plan, though it will not be in charge of implementing those promises. Wildcat is a mining junior – which means it won’t actually operate Hermosa.  Such companies generally prove the reserves exist, get a plan for the mine permitted, and then sell the asset to a major mining firm, whose business it is to build and run mines.

Currently the company is in the process of securing more permits for exploratory drilling before submitting a plan of operations for approval. Since the proposed mine site is within the Coronado National Forest, the Forest Service evaluates the project under the 1872 Hardrock Mining Law. But the way the law was written  – 142 years ago – makes it hard for land managers to say no to a mining project, even if the land is already used for other purposes such as protecting a town’s water supply.

Approval from the Forest Service will trigger environmental review under the National Environmental Policy Act but for Dronkers, such review is basically just a disclaimer – a way to perhaps reduce the impacts, but not eliminate them. “At the end of the day, you still have a massive water-sucking pit,” he said.

A number of agencies could stop the project from getting off the ground. The EPA, for instance has veto power under the Clean Water Act,  if it believes the mine would unleash extraordinary impacts, but it rarely uses that authority.

Meanwhile, more than 50 years after the last mining operation shut down, heavy metals continue to leach into streams and groundwater in the mountains above Patagonia. And at least six other mining companies are eyeing the area’s mineral riches. 

Sarah Tory is an editorial intern at HCN. She tweets @tory_sarah

High Country News Classifieds
  • CONSERVATION PROGRAM MANAGER
    Central Colorado Conservancy, located in Salida, Colorado, is seeking a Conservation Program Manager dedicated to managing the Conservancy's land protection program which includes developing and...
  • PUBLIC LANDS PROGRAM MANAGER
    Conserve Southwest Utah is seeking a candidate with excellent communication skills and a commitment to environmental conservation for the position of Public Lands Program Manager....
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Western Slope Conservation Center in Paonia, CO, seeks a dynamic leader who is mission-driven, hardworking, and a creative problem-solver. WSCC is committed to creating...
  • PLANNED GIVING OFFICER
    National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA), the nation's oldest and largest national parks nonprofit advocacy organization seeks a Planned Giving Officer. Do you find energy in...
  • NORTHERN NEW MEXICO PROJECT MANAGER
    Seeking qualified Northern New Mexico Project Manager to provide expertise, leadership and support to the organization by planning, cultivating, implementing and managing land conservation activities,...
  • REGIONAL TRAIL STEWARDSHIP COORDINATOR
    Are you passionate about connecting people to the outdoors? The Pacific Crest Trail Association (PCTA) is looking for someone with trail maintenance and volunteer engagement...
  • TRAIL CREW MEMBER
    Position Title: Trail Crew Member Position Type: 6 month seasonal position, April 17-October 15, 2023 Location: Field-based; The RFOV office is in Carbondale, CO, and...
  • CEO BUFFALO NATIONS GRASSLANDS ALLIANCE
    Chief Executive Officer, Remote Exempt position for Buffalo Nations Grasslands Alliance is responsible for the planning and organization of BNGA's day-to-day operations
  • IDAHO DIRECTOR - WESTERN WATERSHEDS PROJECT
    Western Watersheds Project seeks an Idaho Director to continue and expand upon WWP's campaign to protect and restore public lands and wildlife in Idaho, with...
  • DIRECTOR OF DEVELOPMENT, NA'AH ILLAHEE FUND
    Na'ah Illahee Fund (NIF) is seeking a highly qualified Development Director to join our team in supporting and furthering our mission. This position will create...
  • DIRECTOR OF OPERATIONS, NA'AH ILLAHEE FUND
    Na'ah Illahee Fund (NIF) is seeking a highly qualified Operations Director to join our team. This position will provide critical organizational and systems support to...
  • DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR
    Grand Staircase Escalante Partners (GSEP) is seeking a leader to join our dynamic team in the long-term protection of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument (GSENM). We...
  • GRASSLAND RESEARCH COORDINATOR
    The Grassland Research Coordinator is a cooperative position with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service that performs and participates in and coordinates data collection for...
  • HYDROELECTRIC PLANT
    1.3 MW FERC licensed hydroelectric station near Taylorsville CA. Property is 184 deeded acres surrounded by National Forrest.
  • "PROFILES IN COURAGE: STANDING AGAINST THE WYOMING WIND"
    13 stories of extraordinary courage including HCN founder Tom Bell, PRBRC director Lynn Dickey, Liz Cheney, People of Heart Mountain, the Wind River Indian Reservation...
  • GRANT WRITER
    JOB DESCRIPTION: This Work involves the responsibility of conducting research in the procurement of Federal, State, County, and private grant funding. Additional responsibilities include identifying...
  • ASPIRE COLORADO SUSTAINABLE BODY AND HOME CARE PRODUCTS
    Go Bulk! Go Natural! Our products are better for you and better for the environment. Say no to single-use plastic. Made in U.S.A., by a...
  • CANYONLANDS FIELD INSTITUTE
    Field seminars for adults in the natural and human history of the Colorado Plateau, with lodge and base camp options. Small groups, guest experts.
  • ATTORNEY AD
    Criminal Defense, Code Enforcement, Water Rights, Mental Health Defense, Resentencing.
  • LUNATEC HYDRATION SPRAY BOTTLE
    A must for campers and outdoor enthusiasts. Cools, cleans and hydrates with mist, stream and shower patterns. Hundreds of uses.