Beneath the dusty soil of rural Nevada, colossal underground aquifers make life possible. Despite receiving barely 10 inches of rain per year, the driest U.S. state has extensive groundwater resources that support ranchers, farmers, and vital prairie ecosystems.
However, this precious resource faces a new threat from the soaring demand for minerals needed to produce so-called green energy technologies.
The United States isn't alone in this problem. Communities in South America's lithium triangle also are suffering the effects of increased water usage from mining operations that are rushing to meet renewable energy demands.
The elements are primarily extracted from heavily drought-affected or arid regions. It's true in the United States, Australia, Chile, Argentina, Bolivia, Mexico, Canada, and China.
Yet, many officials and organizations expressing concern over water scarcity are staunch supporters of energy-related mining.
To make products such as solar panels, electric vehicle (EV) batteries, and wind turbines, extensive mining and water are required. Critical minerals used in "green" technology—copper, lithium, cobalt, nickel, and graphite—require a staggering amount of water to produce. That's especially true for lithium, which uses 500,000 gallons of water per metric ton during the extraction process.
Environmentalists often criticize the brine extraction method for sourcing lithium because of its considerable water use, although other elements used to build new energy technology, particularly copper, also require a lot of water.
High and DryMr. Hadder says he's seen the push in the United States to increase domestic lithium production at the expense of objective environmental analysis. The contested Thacker Pass mine in Nevada is one of these projects, which local ranchers and Native American communities have opposed to protect groundwater, cultural heritage, and the environment.
Mr. Hadder said that while an impact survey for Thacker Pass has been conducted, details surrounding damage mitigation and the protection of water resources are conspicuously lacking. He said he expects that to become the trend in future mining operations for green energy minerals.
"Damage is being done already," he said.
Many excavation projects in the Silver State require the draining of critical groundwater to extract the minerals from the ground.
Mr. Hadder called the process "de-watering," and it has been known to affect everything from nearby springs to residential wells, plants, watersheds, and wildlife. He compared it to digging a hole in the sand at the beach: When the water fills in at the bottom, it has to be removed in order to continue digging. That's a common problem in pit mining, a standard method for extraction in Nevada.
This artificial draining of underground aquifers or "de-watering" can have a long-range effect on existing resources that could last for decades, even centuries.
Sometimes, mining lowers the water table by a significant amount. Mr. Hadder cited the Cortez Hills project in Nevada, where the groundwater was lowered by almost 1,200 feet.
"We're talking about almost a quarter of a mile," he said.
“That de-watering will affect all groundwater attached to it: springs, surface water ... That water table will take a hundred years or more to recover. It’s not a short-term effect. Some of those effects could be permanent," he said.
Losing WaterIn Argentina and Chile, people have been protesting over the devastating effects of mineral excavation, including copper and lithium, on their water for years.
Chile, the world's largest copper producer, is a key member of South America's lithium triangle, alongside Argentina and Bolivia.
It's something Chileans have been actively protesting since 2013. That year, 6,000 protesters kicked off a series of water scarcity demonstrations that included a march on the capital, Santiago. Local media reported that the protesters delivered a letter to then-President Sebastián Piñera, stating, "[Mining construction is] drying up our basins, it is devastating the water cycles that have sustained our valleys for centuries, it is sowing death in our territories."
In the remote Jujuy province of northern Argentina, hundreds of indigenous people have been blocking roads to lithium mines and putting pressure on the provincial government since June to stop excavation in the area because of the stress it's putting on the community's water and surrounding pasture land for livestock.
Crowds of people have mobilized to stop further production while waving the Andean indigenous wiphala flag and brandishing signs with slogans such as: "We don't eat batteries. They take the water, life is gone."
The demonstrators have been fired on by police; local reports claimed that more than 70 people were injured after a June 20 clash with law enforcement.
Representatives of Lithium Americas didn't respond to a request by The Epoch Times for comment.
Many ask how this approach is green or renewable.
"Lithium mining will be a problem for water here too, eventually," a resident of Uyuni, Bolivia, who asked to be referred to as Benji, told The Epoch Times.
Within the lithium triangle, Bolivia has the most underdeveloped, but promising, share of lithium reserves. Beneath the vast and famous Salar de Uyuni salt flat lies one of the world's largest lithium deposits.
Until now, companies have struggled to extract the mineral at a meaningful scale because of government red tape. Yet, locals are concerned after watching their neighbors in Argentina and Chile suffer water loss. Some fear that more than just their precious water will become collateral when lithium mining expands.
"People here [in Uyuni] talk in whispers because if you don't work in tourism, you work in lithium," Benji said.
At nearly 12,000 feet above sea level, the Uyuni salt flat is part of the world's driest desert, where water is scarce to begin with.
Benji works with a tour agency that takes visitors out to the UNESCO World Heritage Site. He said if tourism dries up, half the town will be forced to leave, with the remaining families left reliant on the lithium industry.
"People won't be able to complain about anything. Their survival will be in the hands of a single company," he predicted.
Lander County, NevadaErika Tenney is a resident of Lander County in Nevada, where her family's homestead sits within the 10-foot groundwater drawdown planned for the Robertson expansion project, which is part of the Cortez Mine Complex.
The reality of living near these sprawling mines is something residents such as Mrs. Tenney can't ignore.
"I have five small children ... I'm concerned about the quality of the air, the noise pollution that we have already experienced from the Cortez mine. I can't even imagine how much worse it will get," Mrs. Tenney told The Epoch Times.
She said the sound of vehicles rumbling down the road at the nearby Cortez mine sounds like someone coming directly up her driveway. But the effect on the water is of particular concern.
"We bought our property because it has two creeks that run on the property, and last year, without the [de-watering] that’s going to happen, our creeks got really low," she said.
"I can't imagine how long it will be before it dries up completely. We have a well ... if the water level goes down, our well will most likely be lower-producing."
Groundwater drawdowns are alarming for residents, but mining for the elements necessary to power renewable energy uses excess water in many other ways, from the creation of sulphuric acid required for lithium extraction to reducing dust pollution by watering dirt.
"I don’t know for sure how it’s gonna pan out, but [the aquifer] it’s not going to recover for a couple hundred years. So if you’re in that path, maybe your great, great, great grandkids will have water again," another Lander County resident, who asked to remain anonymous, told The Epoch Times.
Like Benji in Bolivia, the anonymous Nevada resident didn't want to be identified out of a concern about job security. Much like Bolivia, in a Nevada mining town, everyone is connected to the project in one way or another.
"If you’re in that cone of depression, your groundwater is getting sucked down," the resident said, adding that the lion's share of the water removed during mining goes into rapid infiltration basins.
The resident called the intentional drying-up of surface water and wells to assist mining "criminal" and said the U.S. government should ban it.
Yet, Mr. Hadder said, an even bigger problem exists on the mitigation end—aside from a lack of independent environmental analysis for these projects, mitigation measures aren't subject to much scrutiny.
The resident in Lander County, who has seen this happen on more than one occasion, said extraction companies "get by with a crooked smile and say, 'Don’t worry, we’ll take care of it.'"
Mrs. Tenney said de-watering will likely affect the whole Indian Creek recreational area, not just her home.
"[Mining companies] say, 'We'll put the water back,'" she said.
"But they put it back in a different place. So maybe they put it back in the valley, but it doesn’t make its way back to Indian Creek, which is where we're located. And we have a lot of trout and other fish in our creeks."
Mr. Hadder said that there are "pretty big holes" in U.S. water regulation for protection and pollution.
"Mining can create water pollution that has no end in sight. And that’s allowed under U.S. law," he said.
Officials at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of the Interior didn't respond to a request by The Epoch Times for comment.
In Nevada, concerned citizens have held community meetings, signed petitions, and held public demonstrations, but the digging continues.
"People come here from all over with their side-by-sides to fish and hunt," Mrs. Tenney said. "It’s just a shame Indian Creek is a pretty unique year-round creek. And for [mining companies] to just come in and de-water and dry it up would be a real shame."