News Feature | June 4, 2014

Copper Miners Scramble For Water Rights

Sara Jerome

By Sara Jerome


Water rights have become a hot ticket for copper miners. 

Look no further than Freeport-McMoRan, one of the biggest copper miners in the world. The company purchased 280 acres of ranching land in the Arizona desert two years ago, shelling out $1.3 million. 

This land grab was not aimed at acquiring more copper. What the company needed was access to fresh water. 

It needs water "to expand production at North America's biggest copper mine, spread across 65,000 acres nearby. Freeport aims to unearth almost one billion pounds of copper a year—37 percent of current U.S. annual output—at the Morenci, Ariz., mine by 2016," the Wall Street Journal recently reported.  

Water concerns are festering for a proposed Southern Arizona copper mine, as well. Its potential neighbors worried about whether it will soak up all the local water. 

"Augusta Resource Corp., a Vancouver based junior mining company traded in Toronto and New York, wants to build a quarter-billion-pound-per-year copper mine here, next to a beautiful valley favored by retirees seeking golf courses, young couples who need yards, and one very big pecan farm," the Wall Street Journal reported in a separate piece. 

Augusta "seeks to start construction later this year and production of copper around the end of 2017," the Journal reported. 

Local businesses are worried that the copper mine will use up too much water in the area. "This picturesque valley in Southern Arizona, 20 miles from Tucson, has enough water for one of the world’s biggest pecan farms or a new copper mine—but maybe not both," the report said. 

"Delays in receiving permits have been triggered by concerns over water use and quality. This bush country of bear grass, mesquite, oak and prickly pear cactuses gets a mere eight inches of rain a year," it continued. 

Mining is a key industry in Arizona because of its rich copper deposits. A 2010 report published by the state explained why mines require so much water. 

"Most water is used in flotation beneficiation, smelting, and electro-refining. Small amounts are used for domestic purposes (drinking, bathing, and such). It is also used for wetting roads to suppress dust," the report said 

The amount of water needed by a mine can be tough to estimate because it varies according to rainfall. On rainier years, mines do not require as much water for dust suppression. 

For more, check out Water Online's Water Scarcity Solution Center.

Image credit: "New Mexico," josephleenovak © 2003, used under an Attribution 2.0 Generic license:

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