Whether the pen is still mightier than the sword is a tossup. But bulldozers beat them both hands down. Once monster machines ravage nature, there is no going back. And in the American West, nearly out of water, squandered Eden is the least of it.
The bigger picture reflects all the linked facets of global climate collapse. It is starkly evident here in Green Valley, halfway down I-19 from Tucson to Mexico, and across southern Arizona. I’ve watched it happen, slowly then suddenly, since I was a kid.
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Worsening endemic drought after so much past folly has left hydroelectric turbines on the Colorado River perilously close to shutting down, threatening power to millions. Suburban sprawl and thirsty crops in arid places deplete the last ancient aquifers. Snowpacks no longer swell rivers in spring or recharge aquifers. Rigs dig deeper for fossil water under parched lakebeds. Unprecedented wildfires in dry forests, fought by aircraft that gulp up surface water, burn undergrowth that holds what rainfall there is.
A spiking demand for copper adds yet more straws that suck even harder from the same hammered sources. Authorities and politicians cut deals for temporary fixes to buy time. When taps run dry, it will be someone else’s problem.
Crises extend from Mexico through the seven-state Colorado River basin and up into California to the Pacific northwest. Despite a half century of increasingly dire warnings by scientists and journalists, “water wars” is no longer an abstract figure of speech. (See State of the Planet article on the worst drought in the Southwest in 1200 years)
In 2000, the Associated Press sent me around the world for a hard look. In Israel, the Sea of Galilee was so low Jesus could have walked across it by stepping on the rocks. Africans and South Asians abandoned ancestral villages when wells ran dry.
My own home ground hit me hardest. Until the 1900s, steamboats paddled 150 miles between the Gulf of California and Yuma, Arizona. A century later, I followed a pathetic trickle into Mexico, where it vanished into salt marshes long before reaching the gulf.
In Tucson, at the end of Campbell Avenue where high school friends hoping to get lucky took dates to a lonely dead end in the foothills, I found a lavish gated redoubt from where security guards emerged when cars rolled to a stop.
An elderly couple ambled by the main feature, a fountain spewing water that evaporated quickly in the sun. When I asked them if they weren’t worried about the future, the woman shrugged. “There’ll be enough for us,” she said.
Green Valley popped up in the 1960s on a ranch dating back to a 16th century Spanish land grant. Today, its 21,000 inhabitants are mostly red in a blue county, nearly all of them white except in the summer sun. Developers built homes, golf courses and pools close to two large copper mines, with “waste rock” heaps that grow by the year. Operators spray them with water and a stabilizing compound. Charmingly named Gorilla Snot, it cracks over time.
The mines were there first, but they compensate Green Valley for damages, seeking peaceful coexistence. “Whenever the wind blows hard, we know we’ll be getting a new school bus,” one longtime resident told me, with a rueful laugh.
But the threat now extends across the Santa Ritas, which rise from rare wetlands to dramatic peaks, the last hangout of jaguars in America. World-class biodiversity ranges from rare minnows, leopard frogs and delicate flowers to black bear and mule deer.
Hudbay Minerals of Toronto has fought for 12 years to dig Rosemont Mine, a vast half-mile-deep pit, with a mountain of “overburden” that would block a thrilling vista toward Mexico. It would ship concentrate to Asian smelters, paying no royalties and hiring few workers on land that earns billions from recreational use.
State politicians funded by mining interests pushed for it. The U.S. Forest Service, EPA, the Army Corps of Engineers and Pima County opposed it. Under Donald Trump, permits were granted, but conservationists and Indian tribes stalled them in a lawsuit.
In May, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled against Rosemont, 2-1, over a Trump-appointed judge. Meantime, Hudbay had quietly amassed 4,500 acres of private land for Copper World, which would alter the iconic ridge line. Operations likely visible from Tucson would close off public backroads and hiking trails.
A new legal action to block Copper World is in the courts. But in early April, with permits still pending, bulldozers moved in. Great gashes mar the view along I-19 from Tucson to the border. Even if opponents prevail — a long shot — what is gone will stay gone.
“Once those bulldozers move in, it’s over,” Julia Fonseca, Pima County’s veteran hydrologist, told me in 2018 for a spread in Harper’s. Randy Serraglio at the Center for Biological Diversity added perspective: “This goes way beyond one beautiful valley. This is a profound conflict over what is happening in the American West.”
Mine devastation is less of an unfortunate side effect than a business plan. Samuel James’ aerial photos showed the impact across Arizona from Morenci, an eight-mile gash along a scenic highway near New Mexico, to Bagdad Mine up north, which evokes bombed-out sections of another Baghdad after the Iraq invasion.
Silver Bell Mine, owned by a Mexican conglomerate, is just northwest of Tucson, hidden by high fences from public view. From above, I wrote, “it is an upside-down Machu Picchu: vast open pits terraced deep into the earth, some with bright-turquoise, toxic pools at the bottom…A new Arizona copper rush is menacing natural wealth and sparking the passions of a 19th-century range war.”
The Harper’s piece also focused on Resolution Copper, an Anglo-Australian mine northeast of Tucson that would obliterate Oak Flat, sacred to the Apache and other tribes for millennia.
Just before leaving office, Trump’s Interior Department speeded up the approval process. Biden’s aides ordered a temporary hold, which is up for review soon.
That was before the demand for electric vehicles and so much else. “Heap leaching” with sulfuric acid lets miners squeeze copper from the lowest grades of ore despite toxic risks. The Morenci mine’s raw moonscape can keep on growing indefinitely.
South America, Asia and Africa have huge copper reserves in remote places that badly need foreign exchange and jobs. But it is so much easier and cheaper to plunder the American West.
Sen. Joe Manchin, a West Virginia coal baron, and Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto, a Nevada Democrat, blocked an attempt to repeal the 1872 Mining Law meant to protect American hard-rock mines from foreign competition. Companies pay no federal tax or royalties on what they extract from public land.
Mine proponents argue NIMBY: not in my backyard. Copper has to come from somewhere. But beyond plunder in the Grand Canyon State, the problem is water.
An Israeli expert once explained to me a basic truth: If you’re out of water you can either make more, or you can steal it from your neighbors. Desalination is far too expensive and impractical, with serious environmental impact. That leaves water wars.
In its early filings, Hudbay said Rosemont would import 105% of water it needed, leaving a 5% net gain for Tucson’s urban needs. But “import” from where? An intricate skein of canals and exchange agreements all come from interlinked depleting sources.
A Pima County study estimates that Tucson could lose 40 percent of its water supply. The deep pit would reverse underground streams, draining nearby wetlands. Toxic discharges would pollute aquifers. The exit plan would leave an open lake continually filling with water that evaporates fast in summer heat.
Mining is only part of it. Save the Scenic Santa Ritas, a fierce Hudbay opponent, is heavily funded by the Walden family, which also uses scarce water for its expanse of pecan groves to the south.
Farther east, the problem is suburban spawl. As the U.S. army prepares troops for desert combat, Sierra Vista outside of historic Fort Huachuca has grown to a city of 45,000. Beyond, toward Tombstone, the San Pedro River struggles to survive.
The river shelters 100 species of breeding birds, and 250 others that drop in for the winter. Archaeological sites show humans settled among its cottonwoods and lush growth 13,000 years ago. But much of it runs dry, and monumental old trees die.
The river winds up to Benson on the I-10 from Tucson, where 5,000 inhabitants worry about water. Trucks fill cisterns in outlying areas when wells bring up only air. That is where Mike Ingram, a Maricopa County land baron, planned Village at Vigneto: 28,000 homes, golf links, restaurants, stores: all the trappings of a landscaped resort.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service insisted on a prior environmental impact report. But in 2017, the agency abruptly reversed itself, allowing the Army Corps of Engineers to issue the Clean Water Act it needed to get started.
Steve Spangle, a former Fish and Wildlife supervisor, told the Arizona Daily Star in 2019 he “got rolled,” forced by political pressure to ignore misgivings for the first time in a long career. A lawsuit stalled the project, and the Army suspended approval last year.
Rep. Raul Grijalva, an Arizona Democrat who chairs the House Natural Resources Committee, asked the Justice Department to investigate “potentially criminal conduct.”
A 37-page brief cites “highly unusual out-of-cycle donations” totaling $241,600 to the Trump Victory Fund and the Republican National Committee after an undisclosed meeting between Ingram and Deputy Interior Secretary David Bernhardt. It said Ingram also lobbied Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke and EPA Administer Scott Pruitt.
(For the record, Ingram’s attorney denies any wrongdoing, telling the Star this was a political attack.)
Grijalva said partisan aides ignored career staff expertise and “handed out federal agency decisions to Trump’s buddies and big donors on a pay-to-play basis.” He added: “Vigneto’s developer figured backdoor deals with Trump officials would be a more fruitful avenue for getting his way. It’s a shame he wasn’t wrong.”
Reality can beggar belief. In 2015, my ears perked up at a report from the non-profit, Reveal, about a Saudi conglomerate buying up Arizona land to grow fodder for dairy cattle back home. I drove up to La Paz County on the Colorado to check it out.
Almarai, based in Riyadh, had bought 15 square miles of high desert and sunk boreholes to irrigate alfalfa, four times thirstier than wheat. A steady convoy of semis trucked it 290 miles to Long Beach, California. Container ships relayed it to Jeddah.
La Paz was hived off another county, essentially to supply water to the Phoenix area, reminiscent of shady dealings in the film, “Chinatown.” Facing criticism, politicos backed out. Almarai moved in via a local affiliate.
The nearby Baptist church’s well ran dry. Then a chorus of farmers and homeowners howled. County supervisor Holly Irwin was incensed. “We’ve got them moving in here and using our natural resources up,” she said. “Why isn’t anyone paying attention to the ground we live on?”
In rural Arizona, the law is clear: water under you is yours. At one public meeting I covered, the state’s water resources commissioner listened patiently to outrage and argument. Then he returned to Phoenix and the status quo.
The story caused little stir. Almarai was soon joined by companies from the United Arab Emirates and China, with expanded operations across the river in California. Small farmers’ crops shrivel, but Saudi kids have their ice cream.
As drought worsens, the urban demand grows. People water gardens to make up for no rain and splash in backyard pools. Air conditioners demand electricity around the clock as temperatures soar. Restaurants mist outdoor terraces with droplets.
And worse, large farms and orchards seem ready to fight for the last drop. “The world has enough for everyone’s need,” Mahatma Gandhi observed when a lot fewer people were around, “but not enough for everyone’s greed.”
In 1922, a common accord allotted states more water than the Colorado reliably provided. Farms in California’s Imperial Valley got as much water as Arizona, which had 350,000 inhabitants. There are now seven million. Nevada, the least populated U.S. state at 77,000, now tops three million. That was California’s total; today, it is 39 million.
Agriculture uses 75 percent of Western water, much of it for crops too thirsty for arid zones. Uncovered canals run for hundreds of miles from reservoirs and pumping stations. Though cheaper to build, up to a half of their water evaporates in hot weather. New technologies help, but most fields still rely on flood irrigation.
The problems are deeply entrenched: bad organization, self-interest, dubious dealings, subsidies, political pressure. Big users sometimes pour unneeded water into the sand rather than lose their claim for following years.
Alarms sounded in the 1970s. In 1989, David Wirth wrote in Foreign Policy: “Global warming could have catastrophic consequences for the habitability and productivity of the whole planet…it could have serious foreign-policy consequences for all countries.”
They grew louder by the year. Rather than cut back, major squanderers pumped all the harder for short-term profits. Those bulldozers tore up natural splendor, arable land and waterways, hastening the eventual reckoning.
By now, yet another general climate story makes little impact. It is like taking too low a dose of antibiotics for too long; the infection digs in. We need to listen to experts and ensure that regulators regulate.
Stanley Hart, a retired geochemist in Green Valley, wrote an Arizona Daily Star op-ed headed, “Hucksters and Hype at Hudbay Minerals.” To make money, he wrote, Copper World would have to use acid-leaching of low-grade ore, which companies tout, but environmentalists revile. Among other effects, it releases lead into groundwater.
A letter in 2019 got to the heart of it. Nicole Fyffe, assistant to the Pima County administrator who fought hard against the mine, described how her kids grew up climbing trees, chasing prairie dogs and learning to love a threatened natural world.
“Don’t be fooled,” she wrote. “The proposed Rosemont Mine is not about copper, it’s about greed.”
Heading back from Green Valley, I followed Mission Road past rumbling earthmovers adding to waste-rock mountains and a vast fenced-in repair yard for heavy Komatsu graders. In Tucson, I passed the new sprawling Caterpillar regional headquarters.
Then I drove home along the Rillito River, now a dry bed of sand flanked by concrete walls, where at Christmas we once picked bunches of mistletoe from lordly cottonwoods among lush vegetation on farms now subdivided into condos on stretches of asphalt.
Whatever evolving monster machines are used for — agribusiness, mines, industry or housing projects — they add yet more straws to draw on the West’s water resources while they last. And at the rate they are going, that won’t be long.
Global Geneva contributing editor Mort Rosenblum is a renowned American journalist, editor and author currently based in France and Tucson, Arizona. He has travelled and reported the world more years than he can remember. His regular column, The MortReport, is available online and by email. Also see Mort’s most recent book: Saving the World from Trump.