Transcript: Will lithium mining dry up the West?

Mar 12, 2024

This is an automatically generated transcript. Please forgive any spelling or grammatical errors. 

Aaron: Hey, there it is, the landscape, your show about America’s parks and public lands. I’m Aaron Weiss with the Center for Western Priorities, waiting for our inevitable March snowstorm to roll in here in Denver.

Kate: And I’m Kate Groetzinger in Salt Lake City, where I think it’s gonna be sunny for the rest of the week. This week on the pod, we’re talking to three members of the reporting team behind an incredible investigation into how lithium mining could affect the West’s water supply. But before we get to that, let’s do the news.

Last week, the Bureau of Land Management and Forest Service dropped the long awaited draft management plan for the Bears Ears National Monument. Now, every new monument gets a management plan, so that’s not in and of itself very newsworthy. But the thing that makes this so exciting is that it’s the first management plan developed in collaboration with tribal nations. The BLM and Forest Service published a handful of potential plans for the monument per regular practice, and identified the plan that includes the most tribal input as their preferred plan. That’s great news since the agency’s preferred plan is usually the one that ends up going into effect. The preferred plan released last week includes a number of tweaks to allow activities inside the monument’s boundaries, like a complete ban on recreational shooting and some grazing closures and limits on off-roading. In order to protect archeological resources, around 90% of the monument will remain open to grazing, and around two thirds would remain open to off-road vehicles. Under the draft plan, it also places an emphasis on indigenous knowledge and practices for vegetation management, such as cultural burning and wood gathering. A 90 day comment period kicked off on Friday, March 8th. We’ll drop a link to the comment form along with resources to learn more about that plan in the show notes, and we’ll try to line up an interview with some folks involved in drafting the plan in the coming month.

Aaron: In other news, lithium prices are falling along with all other EV metals. Now that’s mainly due to a slowdown in demand for electric vehicles in China and in the us. That’s of course, caused in part by high interest rates, also the somewhat slow rollout of a charging network across the country. In the meantime, China has been pumping out lithium and lithium containing batteries. So the supply side of the equation is dragging down prices. In other words, this is a classic mining boom and bust cycle globally only. The boom was more of just a loud popping noise as far as mining in the US goes. Now ultimately, lithium demand will eventually go up, but it’s hard to say when. I’m seeing some companies and economic studies suggesting that supply is gonna outpace demand until 2030 or beyond. And that’s something to keep in mind as you listen to this interview about lithium and water. And the companies that are insisting their minds won’t damage Western aquifers. We have seen this story play out for 150 years across the west. The minute a mining boom goes bust, mining companies pack up and go, and everyone else is left to clean up the damage.

Kate: We’re excited to have two reporters and an editor from the Howard Center for Investigative Journalism at Arizona State University’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism here today. They’re part of a large team of editors, photographers, and reporters who worked on a groundbreaking investigation into the groundwater threats posed by lithium mining in the West. Their reporting found that lithium mining could suck up billions of gallons of water in some of the driest states in the US and that the federal government has no way to stop this. First up, we’ve got Emma Peterson, a graduate of the Cronkite School, who led the team’s reporting on the Thacker Pass Mine and Tailings. Emma, thanks for being here. Thank

Emma: You for having me.

Kate: Next up, we’ve got Morgan Casey, also a graduate of the Cronkite School, who’s reporting spread across multiple states principally in the West.

Morgan: Hey, thanks for having me.

Kate: And finally, we’ve got Lauren Mucciolo, a professor at the Cronkite School who helped edit the story. Lauren, thanks for being here.

Lauren: Hi, thank you so much for having us.

Kate: All right, Lauren, let’s start with you. Why did the team decide to look into lithium mining in the west?

Lauren: Yeah, sure. So we started looking into lithium mining because, you know, we had seen a lot of spot stories looking at a mine project that had been proposed in northern Nevada, which is actually a mine that Emma spent a lot of time digging into. So that project is called Thacker Pass, and there had been a series of lawsuits against the mine, against the company behind the mine in Nevada, which is owned by lithium Americas Corporation. And that had been in the news quite a bit. So we were curious about that. We saw that there was also a lot of federal funding around mining projects like the lithium mine and some of the spot reporting we had seen also suggested that the backer pass mine was being fast tracked through the regulatory process with the federal government. So we, so basically seeing that sort of series of different spots stories said to us, all right, there’s something going on here that’s worth digging deeper into. And so that’s what we did. We started with Thacker Thacker Pass, but it soon became pretty evident that this wasn’t the only lithium mining project underway, and so then we expanded our search and discovered that there were actually dozens of projects that were in various stages of, proposal planning, getting, you know, sort of, environmental disclosures written. There, some of them were mines that were federal projects. Some of them were projects on state and private land. , but there were many, many coming and it seemed like the sort of regulatory environment around that, at least for one mine raised a lot of questions. So just so it was fertile ground and we dove in and fortunately we had a team of very strong, very passionate reporters in the Howard Center this semester that we decided to delve into this topic who really ran with it and made that reporting their own.

Aaron: Morgan, walk us through some of the basics here. Number one, why are we seeing this lithium boom right now? And then why is it so water intensive? People may hear about mining and you think you’re, you’re just taking rocks outta the ground and that’s that. But there is a lot of fresh water in particular involved in lithium mining.

Morgan: Yeah, so really why we’re seeing the lithium boom is, I mean, the computer we’re recording this on right now, the AirPods I’m using the phone I have next to me. All of this stuff that’s rechargeable requires lithium, and that includes electric cars. So as America is trying to transition away from gas and oil and into electric, we need lithium to do that. So it’s requiring a lot more lithium, and we’re hoping, , or at least the American government is hoping to have that sourced here rather than where it’s currently sourced mostly in South America and then processed in China. Our team member, Alex Appel, really looked into why this process is so water intensive. So mines need the water to process the lithium. So when it’s taken out of rock, it’s actually mostly taken out of this kind of mineral rich, salty water that is technically called brine. And to process all of that, you need fresh water to do that, and we use fresh water mostly just because we know how it reacts chemically at a commercial level. There are mines that are looking into using like salt water and other types of water, but really what we’re using right now is fresh water. , in terms of recycling it, there is a couple of California mines that are looking into it, but nothing developed yet.

Kate: Awesome, Emma, so Morgan mentioned that we get a lot of lithium from South America. , which country does the US get the most of its lithium from and do we have any domestic lithium mining?

Emma: Yeah, so we’re gonna mention the primary place that we’re getting our lithium batteries and lithium production from is actually from China. About 90% of our lithium battery imports currently are coming from China, and a few other different Asian countries. but China is the majority of that, and yeah, we do have one, we have had one location in the US called Silver Peak. Our team member, Jordan Gerard did most of her work specifically on Silver Peak and looking into the environmental impacts of that. but they’re producing, or they have been producing up to this point about 1% of the world’s lithium, which is pretty impressive for it being just one spot in the us. But obviously now there’s more popping up all over the place. But, , yeah, as of right now, silver Peak is the only one here, and most of it’s from China.

Aaron: Lauren, I want to dive into Silver Peak a little bit more, and it’s one of the most impressive bits of reporting here that the team really showed up with receipts as to this question of whether the mine at Silver Peak is impacting the freshwater. , in the area reporter did a Zoom interview, and Albermarle, the owner of the mine, followed up with a statement in bold Albermarle operations do not underline impact the freshwater aquifers in, in the area. And yet that is immediately followed up with the receipts and walk me through that reporting process and what Albermarle did in effect tell the Securities Exchange Commission about its fresh water use?

Lauren: Yeah, no, this is, thank you for, for that question. ’cause this is one of the findings I think that we’re probably most proud of. And I was actually just speaking with a classroom of students about, you know, something quite similar. This is what I call a hiding in plain sight discovery. So the information about how much water was being taken from the ground in Nevada is not, we weren’t out there making measurements in the ground. We weren’t, you know, trying to unearth something that nobody had had known before. There are county, people, there are, there are jobs, there are there, there is a mechanism for actually doing these measurements on a regular basis and so we found an annual report from one of the sort of regional water, councils in Nevada, that, that basically monitors, water groundwater across the state and just right there in plain sight, this report, which is available to the public, stated that groundwater measurements throughout the sort of Silver Peak area had decreased significantly.

Lauren: And the hydrologist, the water scientist behind that report was very direct in his statement saying, and this is attributable to the, the mine, the lithium mine at Silver Peak. So we had the work of a scientist who had previously, you know, had spent I think 30 years working for the US Geological Survey. So somebody, a very credentialed person was taking these measurements and the county knew about it but actually the state, gives out, you know, something that we learned through the process of our reporting. When the state gives out water rights to industry to other stakeholders, it’s based on an antiquated system that’s not actually related to how much water is really available and that was kind of one of the discoveries. And you’re seeing a lot more of this in the media kind of across the country.

Lauren: We’re learning that groundwater management across the board in America is, is is being done very poorly. we don’t really have a strong infrastructure for that. And Nevada is, is kind of, is no different. It seems that Nevada is starting to, you know, even I think Morgan, if it was either you or Jordan Gerard who spoke to, I think it was Jordan actually who spoke to Nile Pennington as we were getting near to publication, about, you know, we’re not there, there’s a real problem with the amount of data that’s available. And he said, yeah, Nevada needs to measure, go measure how much water it really has so that we can start working off of informed numbers and make informed decisions instead of using this antiquated system, but Albermarle basically said, you know, we’re allowed to use, we have the permits, the, the state water engineer has allowed us to take this much water. So what we’re doing is within our rights, it’s legal, it’s, it’s under the sort of, you know, government oversight and yet you’ve got these different entities and government not really speaking to each other, not sharing data and big data, you know, big data gaps. So that’s what we really were able to uncover.

Kate: Awesome. Morgan, Lauren just mentioned the water issues at Silver Peak. Are there any other lessons from that mine that sort of apply to mining, that should apply to mining going forward?

Morgan: I mean, I think Lauren really touched on it pretty well is that there’s a lot about mining that we know about in terms of scientific research, but we’re not necessarily legislating. So kind of there’s a large gap that we’re seeing between what the legislation allows versus what environmentalists are kind of advocating for. And not even just environmentalists use water scientists that, you know, it is their job to go out there and keep track of all of this, and they’re kind of like, yo, what is going on? Why, why aren’t more people concerned about this? I mean, you know, Nile’s been measuring that same well for decades. , as we, as we wrote given giving it the old Nile Pennington test and just seeing year after year after year, that rock hitting further and further down until now it’s not even hitting water ’cause there’s no water left.

Aaron: Emma, I wanna bring you back in and ask about Thacker Pass. it’s a name that probably a lot of listeners here recognize due to the efforts of the Reno Sparks Indian Colony and the Smit Lake Ute tribe pushing to stop the mine, which is located on the site or the very least very near an 1865 massacre so far it looks like that fight they are losing. What makes Thacker Pass so important or such a big deal in terms of lithium development in the us?

Emma: Yeah, and first I would just say that as far as the tribal issues going on there, Noelle Smith and Pacey Garcia have ran a really great article about that, , specifically during our project. , but yeah, as far as domestic lithium, development Thacker paths is gonna be incredibly important. It’s going to decrease our dependence on foreign, companies significantly, significantly, , for both lithium production but, and battery manufacturing, so lithium Americas is actually signed a huge deal with their largest stakeholder, general Motors, and they have basically verbally have guaranteed, I guess, that everything will be kept domestically, everything from production to, you know, selling these products is gonna be within the US. Now technically nothing actually stops ’em from selling outside of our borders, nothing legally would stop them from doing that, and there might be good reason to even think that they would, there might be a broader market for that out there, especially since a lot of their locations for manufacturing these batteries are outside of the us. But that being said, they have invested a lot in expanding the US EV production. So, you know, that is definitely encouraging and it definitely shows us that there are efforts being made to make sure that these products stay within the us.

Aaron: And then what’s the groundwater situation potentially at Thacker Pass?

Emma: well, as far as groundwater, basically we’ve been, so Tim Crowley was someone we spoke to over there. He’s the VP for government affairs over at lithium Americas, and according to him, there won’t be any damage, any negative effects to people living in the area surrounding Thacker Pass. Though he does confirm that there will be 10 feet of drawdown in the groundwater levels. And so, you know, that can create, you know, different environmental implications for that and how that could affect the soil, groundwater quality. But he stated that there will be no negative effects, and so that water is going to be sourced primarily from, they had bought a ranch that’s in a nearby town that the farmer there was growing alfalfa. And so when that farmer had sold them his ranch, he also with it sold his water rights. And so Lithium Americas has technically bought 22% more water rights than they plan on using, which, you know, according to them will be a great thing because that means that less water will be used in the long run, but you know, it’s hard to guarantee that there won’t be any negative impacts when there’s 10 feet of drawdown happening within several miles of a radius of the facility.

Kate: Emma, quick db question for you. Is that groundwater or Colorado River Water?

Emma: So this is going to be, so it’s groundwater, but they will also be taking from the Quinn River Basin in Nevada as well, so those are their primary places. So the Colorado River doesn’t necessarily have a strong connection as far as use to this project specifically, but definitely for others. Yeah.

Lauren: Yeah. And you know, of, of the dozens of projects we looked at, based on where they are in this sort of regulatory and, and permitting process, you actually don’t even disclose how much water you’re going to use and where you’re going to get it from until pretty late in the process of actually getting all the formal approvals. So you can be pretty far into a project in the middle of the desert in New Mexico or Arizona or Nevada, where there’s no water in sight , and, and have already invested quite a bit of money and resources and time and bought up claims to lithium deposits in that area without having any requirements to start, you know, thinking about where you’re gonna get the water from.

Morgan: I mean, it’s not even just buying up claims, it’s also getting other people’s money, a lot of these projects are making pretty big promises to their investors before, like Lauren said, guaranteeing that they have a source of water to even operate the mine that they’re promising to investors.

Kate: Hmm. Emma, returning to Thacker pass briefly, when you talk about the drawdown, is that from the brine that they’re going to be extracting or is that from fresh water?

Emma: That’ll be fresh water. Thacker Pass is a hard rock mine, so they actually won’t be using any of that saltwater brine. So yeah, when we talk about draw down, that’s literally to visually explain it, them pumping water from the ground, freshwater from the ground, so a lot of what they’re using it for is just gonna be for dust mitigation and part of their, ’cause they have a processing facility on their site, and so that will also be used for that. But yeah, it’s literally just gonna be pumped from the ground. And Tim Crowley has claimed that there will be, you know, an extent of reuse in that as well, and that’s something that, you know, kind of Morgan had touched on it, there’s not necessarily like a super refined system for that yet, but a lot of these companies are promising, this type of reuse and recycling of the water.

Aaron: I wanna make sure we make more super refined jokes here in this mining episode. One last Thacker pass question, speaking of refining is the byproducts, the waste called, mine tailings? What is the tailings situation looking like? It’s gonna be at Thacker Pass?

Emma: Yeah, so the tailing situation was really interesting to look into because, I mean, the biggest thing that I really wanted to portray in that story is that tailings last forever, and they can contain toxic materials, radioactive materials, and specifically at Thacker Pass that will be happening. In fact, they’re gonna be producing 272 million metric tons of tailings that will be containing this toxic waste, some in levels that they don’t actually know for sure yet, as far as their, its radioactivity concentration, and so obviously this is a huge issue and a big part of what I was looking at was kind of how we developed our stories, some of the students from the spring semester had looked into was this idea that the way that they’d be containing their tailings is unsafe. Obviously we get more into detail about that in the story, so that was something that really drew to my attention because if it’s unsafe, you have 272 metric tons of tailings, that could…

Aaron: Sitting out there getting rained on leaching, who knows where

Emma: Exactly. And so that is the anticipated production over their 40 year mine life. But even still, that’s a huge amount and relatively it is still a big amount compared to what we see at other mines as well.

Lauren: Yeah, and I think one of the really interesting things Emma did, but you should talk about Emma, is just seeing are there any rules, any laws about tailings across the country?

Emma: Yeah, so no, I mean, yeah, that’s the big thing we found that there are no federally federal protections or protections for citizens surrounding these mines or federal guidelines really you know, there’s guidelines globally, like different, basically just suggestions I suppose. And states have their different rules for that. Some were strict than others. Some I found had really great management on that. Some had none. And so I think the biggest thing that was concerning about that is that some of these states, there were no tailings management plans. They had proposed lithium mines, and so if that’s the case, that’s something that should be happening before the mine is developed and not after, especially when, you know, as I said, there have been thousands of people in the past a hundred years who have been killed from these collapses. And most, not notably the Brumadinho collapse that happened in Brazil a few years ago that killed 300 people nearly. And, you know, there will be decades if not hundreds of years of damage to their land, their soil, their crops, and so yeah, obviously it’s a pretty big deal and it happens more commonly than people think. And I had never heard about it before and I didn’t know that it was even a thing, but, you know, it’s a big deal. So,

Kate: Emma, where does Nevada fall in terms of state regulations for tailings?

Emma: The companies are definitely. They are able to kind of set their own rules. I guess is probably the best way to say it. I think that they have a decent regulatory systems in general for mining compared to some other states, but they don’t necessarily have laws pertaining very specifically to tailings management. A lot of times, and this is what I found in a lot of states, that tailings are kind of a part of a broader category of waste and sometimes there’s no differentiation between chemical waste versus, you know, non-radioactive versus radioactive waste, that kind of thing. And that’s something that’s important too, because all these waste need to be handled differently. They have different effects when there’s exposure. And so that was something that was interesting about tailings, is that it was kind of in this collective group of sometimes not even just waste, sometimes it just was in the category of, you know, kind of just their, I forget the word for it, but they’re just kind of rock waste, which I guess is entirely, that’s even more broad. And so that’s something that I think Nevada is also doing.

Aaron: One of the things I really appreciated about this piece, starting with these very high profile examples, but then pointing out that these problems are going to scale up rapidly and you and your team, Lauren discovered 72 proposed lithium mines pending in the US right now. Of those 72, 40 of them are in Nevada, I’ve never seen that number collected in one place before. How how’d you put that together?

Lauren: Yeah, isn’t that wild? We weren’t able to find a place where that number had been collected either, and we looked. We looked quite a bit. So we did the sort of, you know, the boots and leather work of, of reporters, that reporters have done for generations of trying to determine what that number would be based upon our own research. So, you know, Morgan and Emma were a big part of this. In addition to the rest of the team, which was a total group of 15 reporters, we looked online as much as we can for media reports that suggested that there was something kind of in the works in a, in an area. And then we, we dug to find if there were any actual filings done by the company regarding the project so that we could vet if the project was real or not. So we didn’t base our number just on finding media reports. We based our number on using media reports as, as sort of like a, what I would call a breadcrumb trail and then trying to follow the bread breadcrumbs home somewhere. And so we found technical reports, we found environmental disclosures, we found SEC, you know, corporate filings, financial filings, that describes these projects and all the sort of various stages. Some of them were just in exploratory phases. Some of them were farther along in the permitting process and had already reached the point in their process where they had to identify the source of water. I think of the 72 mines and work, and you’ll be able to correct me on this, of the 72 mines we identified, was it less than 10 or around 10 that had already disclosed how much water they would be using. It’s a very low number. And so to know these, these mines are, are coming and they’re coming in different states and they’re, some of them are on state land, some of them are on federal land, some of them are on private land. So their sort of regulatory journeys will, will vary depending on all those different criteria. But there’s a lot of incentives from the government to get these mines online as quickly as possible and get them extracting lithium in its large, you know, quantities as possible, so we really did the labor of pulling together all of these different reports, vetting them and determining this number of 72.

Kate: Morgan, did you have a number you were gonna pull up there?

Morgan: Yes. So the number of mines that specified the amount of water that they would need was only 17 out of the 72 that we looked at. And then the number of mindset specified that they would be using up a water source was six, is what we have on hand.

Kate: Wow. So they came out and said they’re gonna completely use up a, the water,

Morgan: Not necessarily completely use up, but use like a…

Kate: Okay. Morgan, tell us a little bit more about those water findings. You said 17 specified may, something about how much water they were gonna use. Were you guys able to sort of project and put together an estimate of how much water they could all use if they were all to come online? And if so, tell us about that.

Morgan: So, we really tried, but this kind of goes back to what Lauren was mentioning earlier about the kind of wishy-washy federal regulation on water use when it comes to mining. When I say 17 mines specified water use, that could literally just be like, Hey, we think we’re gonna use this much, or we’re gonna use this much per day, but not necessarily tell us how many days they’re operating or we’re going to use this much for this part of the mine, but they’re not giving like, the full life cycle. So we really tried, Alex really, really tried to get us an entire estimate, but we just really weren’t able to, ’cause if they’re just not required to really kind of outright tell us, or tell regulators even really throughout most of the process, most of the regulatory process, both state and federal, how much water they’re gonna need. So unfortunately we were not able to come up with a cumulative total.

Lauren: And with some of these mines, I mean, they’re all using different processes to extract lithium. So, you know, Emma alluded to Thacker Pass using a ore or rock, you know, sort of format to extract lithium from the rock in Silver Peak they’re using, they’re pulling lithium out of brine water out of this salty, , mineral rich water and extracting it from there. So depending on the process they’re using, it’ll involve a slightly different, you know, amount of fresh water and technique of fresh water, you know, there’s some people saying they’re gonna recycle water, but they don’t know how or, you know, there, there’s, there’s other people who are saying that they plan to use no water, but we know that’s not true because, you know, cause we’ve seen how that’s done, where we’ve seen places that are trying to use new techniques that have never been done at scale before. I mean, and, and the salt and sea, the water use around that project. Those projects in California, they’re using less brine water, but more fresh water that I think even Silver Peak is using. but it looks like they’re using very little water because of the way that their mechanism, way that the actual pro processing and extracting of the lithium works. there’s a lot of projects that are going to extract lithium from clay, and I don’t think there’s a process for extracting lithium from clay that’s been agreed upon as a sort of scientifically sound way to do it. So again, charging ahead with these projects, getting permits and would not only do we know, not know how much water is gonna be used, but we’re not even sure necessarily how we’re gonna get the lithium out to begin with.

Morgan: Something else I also wanna add about kind of how these companies are presenting their water use. Something that almost everyone on the team had to get familiar with was the unit of measurement acre feet, which, you know, we spent time and Alex spent time kind of memorizing the conversion to gallons. And it’s a really, I don’t wanna say deceptive, but it’s a way to present the amount of water that they’re using, in much smaller means than kind of how the normal person can kind of wrap their brain around it. I’m gonna take the time to give you the the conversion that I have no longer memorized, of course it is a saved search in my Google, so one acre feet is approximately, 326,000 gallons of water, or just of anything, so that is like such a big number to just have like a one to that number ratio.

Morgan: So it was kind of crazy to be doing these conversions and be like, oh, this number on paper that they’re filing with the SEC seems like nothing. And then you do the conversion and it’s like, wait a second. How many swimming? How many Olympic size swimming pools is that? How many cups of water can I like, conse of that amount of water? , so yeah, that’s just something that I thought was really interesting and kind of was a challenge in writing this was trying to convey just how much water all of this is to kind of really wrap your mind around it.

Aaron: I wanna take a step sideways and ask about the process of reporting this story by my count, I think that there are 15 credited reporters on this piece, which gives you a sense of the scale and importance of it, for any of you, maybe this is starting with Lauren as the editor and professor, but what’s that process like coordinating a team that big on a project of this scope?

Lauren: Yeah, that’s a great question. The short answer is, it, it ain’t easy. But let me give you a little context. So this project was reported and produced out of the Howard Center for Investigative Journalism, which is a unit of the Cronk High School of Journalism at a SU, where we do original investigative reporting. And so the students who come through that program like Morgan and Emma, were master’s students. They’ve now graduated, who as their capstone experience would enroll in the Howard Center and participate whatever investigative reporting project was taking place that semester. But prior to arriving in the Howard Center, Emma and Morgan and, and their peers went through a very, very, you know, intentional curriculum to learn about data and how we use data in investigative reporting. They study just the techniques of investigative reporting: how to do public records requests, how to do depth research and and depth interviews with sources, how to do sources with potentially confrontational, or, you know, challenging sources. how to find, you know, these kinds of docents from like offices of Inspector General or the Government Accountability office where, where government programs are audited. So they’re prepared through this program to get to the Howard Center and then dive deeply into an original national investigative project. And so managing the group of 15 reporters, yeah, not, not an easy thing to do, but what we did is we had students focusing on sort of different reporting threads at different times. So every once in a while we would, we would flare out, people would start kind of go running. Jordan was our main reporter looking at Silver Peak. We had several reporters, including Daisy Tanner who ran with the, the Salton Sea Projects. Morgan spent a lot of time looking into some projects in Utah and North Carolina. Emma was looking closely at Thacker Pass as, as well as her colleague Annika Tolas. So we had, we had a team of people kind of all looking in, in sort of different directions. We had a student, Josh Shim, who really managed the sort of data for the team pulling together everything we were learning from the technical reports that we were acquiring about these different projects, plotting them on a US map so we can see where they were, where they were in relation to groundwater basins, particularly groundwater basins that may have been already designated as a, as a groundwater basin that’s already stress, which in Nevada that’s most of them. So it was, you know, it, it involved basically a lot of like flaring out, everybody run and go hunt and then come back to base and let’s, let’s see where we got and then we will re reorient ourselves and then go do it all again. So we kind of did that process for a while. And then we really landed just by the sort of in, you know, , the commitment to reporting so deeply onto these different minds. We landed on the Silver Peak finding. We landed on the fact that Salton Seas reports, technical reports were disclosing plans to use Colorado River Water, you know, one of the most notoriously stress water resources in America. so you, you know, that’s as we went through the process of, of flaring out and, and coming back to base, we made these decisions and that’s how we kind of directed our reporting, and then pulled together this really great multimedia project working with NewsHour West, and their senior producer, Phil Ravi, working with USA today. They came on as a partner kind of late in the game, but provided, you know, just absolute tremendous exposure for our reporting, and so, so yeah, so that’s how we kind of,  we built the team, we built out relationships to get the story out there, and then we just jammed .

Kate: Yeah, and there’s a lot of content on the website for this project. It’s not just the story you’ve got, you’ve even got an interactive game that takes you through the process of proposing your own lithium mine, which is really fun and interesting, and we’ll drop a link to all of that in the show notes. So I wanna wrap up here by, by putting some questions to Emma and Morgan about groundwater regulations and laws. Emma will go to you first. What do you think needs to change, if anything, to protect communities and ecosystems in Nevada from being sucked dry by these lithium mines?

Emma: Yeah, I mean, as far as just the damage that comes with that over pumping leads to just so many issues that I don’t think people understand. Also, it outside of just, you know, at Brian’s when you’re pumping so much water out, you risk deteriorating that water source and creating salt water intrusion. But outside of that, even there’s issues that just happen environmentally, even kind of what we did look at at Silver Peak, you see kind of these land fissures and sinkholes that are a direct result of over pumping groundwater and not having, you know, the land not having the support to really stay up and keep from compacting. so yeah, I mean it’s a big issue. And as far as things to change from that, I mean, I think the very general answer that I mean covers most of it is just having more federal guidelines and having more of a just basic overall standard that each state would have to adhere to as a minim. , ’cause I think that’s a big thing that we notice kind of all over the board. , with my tailings research, with the water research with a lot of these state laws, , there’s just kind of this general lack of having a bare minim set standard federally. , and historically, I mean, that’s really hard, been really hard to implement in the mining industry, but, , kind of where we are right now, especially concerning these water issues, that’s definitely, , I mean, I think we think that that’s something that’s necessary now.

Kate: Absolutely. , Morgan, anything to add to that? , I know you looked at mines outside of Nevada, so I’m curious if there, if there are state level things you noticed or, , other federal regulations that you think should be in place? Yeah,

Morgan: So in terms of what would honestly help Nevada the most, because most of these line mines are on federal land, federal, , policy would, and updating that from the 1850s law that it’s currently governing most of the state, , would really be ideal. So there is currently proposals, , in the federal government to update, , the mining law that’s governing most of Nevada land that would require projects to prove that there are enough water, like there are enough water resources to actually execute the project without over draining it. , however, it only has democratic support, so it has an uphill battle, but something like that, , would definitely help nevadans the most in terms of state policy. There’s actually a house bill that was just passed or passed last year. Now at this point, , , in Utah, HB five 13 that, , states it governs the great Salt Lake, , and mining from the waters in the Great Salt Lake.

Morgan: And it says that anyone that mines on the great Salt Lake needs to put back in the same amount or about equivalent, , water that they took out. So what gets taken out must go back in. It doesn’t necessarily specify how that should happen. , I’m pretty sure there’s still kind of rules that are in proposals, but something that really requires either from the federal government or from the state government to make sure that water is a priority, that not only the mine is gonna have water, but the populations that rely on that same water, the ecosystems that rely on that same water, , that everyone’s gonna get their fair share. But it’s kind of hard to give the perfect legislation. Obviously I’m not a legislator, I just write about them. , when we’re really trying to balance all of these different things. We’re trying to balance, you know, providing economic opportunity for these places, we’re trying to balance environmentalism, , and preventing climate change. So I think legislators have their work cut out for them, and I wish them the best of luck.

Aaron: . Lauren, I wanna wrap with a 30,000 foot question for you. Since you’re sitting here as a J School professor leading a team doing this spectacular reporting that, let’s be honest, is not happening nearly as often in local newsrooms right now, particularly coming out of a, a, a really terrible few weeks in terms of journalism jobs across the west, including publications like the LA Times who should be theoretically in the driver’s seat when it comes to big investigative environmental reporting. So what does this say to you in terms of how we collectively, as I wave my arms generally at all of this, , how, how do we as a country, as a democracy make sure there are enough resources or that the reporting that is happening at levels like this, if it’s 15 dedicated grad students are getting in front of the people, the policy makers, the people who live near these water supplies. H how do you balance all of that given the changes in the industry right now?

Lauren: Yeah, no, the, the, the, the news industry is going through tremendous changes and it’s something that, you know, I talk about a lot with my journalism students, myself and my colleague in the Howard Center, , executive editor, mark Greenblatt. The students who are graduating are concerned about the industry that they’re entering into. But what’s clear is that the importance of this work and the importance of a good investigative journalism that spends the time and takes the care, , and does the fact checking, , and gets all the sources to weigh in that the sort of value and the importance of that kind of reporting. , this, this is the time for it, this is the time it’s ever been so important. , and what, it’s one of the great things about a program like the Howard Center, which I’m very fortunate to have been a part of since, , since we opened up shop here in 2019. , the programs like, , the Howard Center and, and other sort of collegiate investigative journalism programs are hopefully kind of filling some of that space that, , you know, professional newsrooms just can’t afford to maintain anymore. I think one of the biggest challenges for a professional newsroom is to maintain an investigative team. ’cause they’re the most buck for the least bang, , You know, they’re, they, they require a lot of resourcing and they don’t put out as many stories, but actually their stories are, can be incredibly impactful. So they actually do have quite a bit of bang. So not to, not to undercut that, but, , but we need these kinds of programs. We need partnerships like the partnership that the Howard Center had with NewsHour and with USA today to get a project like this out. , and so I’m hoping that the role of places like the Howard Center can, can help for what it’s worth, , in this, in this battle. , but I’m also just hoping to see a lot more health in the news industry and, and we’ll see as, you know, our next year, , you know, our election year takes place, what, how things play out. .

Kate: Awesome. Well, we’ll leave it there. Emma Peterson, Morgan Casey and Lauren Mucciolo with ASU’s Howard Center for Investigative Journalism. Thank you all for being with us today.

Lauren: Thanks for having us.

Emma: Thank you.

Morgan: Thank you.

Kate: Here’s some good water news to close out this episode. Fonda Monte, a subsidiary of Saudi Arabia’s largest dairy company, has stopped pumping groundwater on state leases in Arizona. The state announced last fall that it would not re-up the leases, which expired at the end of February because groundwater is largely unregulated in Arizona. Funde paid only $25 per acre to farm alfalfa on state land and was able to pump as much groundwater as it needed to do so the groundwater was pumping, came from an aquifer designated as a future water source for the city of Phoenix. So this is great news for people who live there.

Aaron: We, well, that is it for today’s episode. Thank you, of course, for downloading and listening. As always, feel free to pitch us an episode. Send us your thoughts, comments, complaints at address of course podcast@westernpriorities.org.

Kate: Thanks again to Morgan, Emma, and Lauren for joining us today. And thank you for listening to the landscape.