Lithium: Mining Mountains of Water

Lithium: Mining Mountains of Water

In this article Rebecca Wildbear talks about how civilization is wasting our planet’s scarce water sources for mining in its desperate effort to continue this devastating way of life.

By Rebecca Wildbear

Nearly a third of the world lacks safe drinking water, though I have rarely been without. In a red rock canyon in Utah, backpacking on a week-long wilderness training in my mid-twenties, it was challenging to find water. Eight of us often scouted for hours. Some days all we could find to drink was muddy water. We collected rain water and were grateful when we found a spring.

Now water is scarce, and the demand for it is growing. Globally, water use has risen at more than twice the rate of population growth and is still increasing. Ninety percent of water used by humans is used by industry and agriculture, and when groundwater is overused, lakes, streams and rivers dry up, destroying ecosystems and species, harming human health, and impacting food security. Life on Earth will not survive without water.

In the Navajo Nation in Arizona, Utah, and New Mexico, a third of houses lack running water, and in some towns, it is ninety percent. Peabody Energy Corporation, the largest coal producer and a Fortune 500 company, pulled so much water from the Navajo aquifer before closing its mining operation that many wells and springs have run dry. Residents now have to drive 17 miles to wait in line for an hour at a communal well, just to get their drinking water.

Worldwide, the majority of drinkable water comes from underground reservoirs called aquifers. Aquifers feed streams, lakes, and rivers, but their waters are finite. Large aquifers exist beneath deserts, but these were created eons ago in wetter times. Expert hydrologists say that like oil, once the “fossil” waters of ancient reservoirs are mined, they are gone forever.

Peabody’s Black Mesa Mine extracted, pulverized, and mixed coal with water drawn from the Navajo aquifer to form a slurry. This was sent along a 273-mile-long pipeline to the Mojave Generating Station in Laughlin, Nevada, to power Los Angeles. Every year, the mine extracted 1.4 billion gallons (4,000+ acre feet) of water from the aquifer, an estimated 45 billion gallons (130,000+ acre feet) in all.

Pumping out an aquifer draws down the water level and empties it forever. Water quality deteriorates and springs and soil dry out. Agricultural irrigation and oil and coal extraction are the biggest users of waters from aquifers in the U.S. Some predict that the Ogallala aquifer, once stretching beneath five mid-western states, may be able to replenish after six thousand years of rainfall.

Rain is the most accurate measure of available water in a region, yet over-pumping water beyond its capacity to refill is widespread in the western U.S. and around the world. The Middle East ran out of water years ago—it was the first major region in the world to do so. Studies predict that two thirds of the world’s population are at risk of water shortages by 2025. As ground water levels fall, lakes, rivers, and streams are depleted, and the land, fish, trees, and animals die, leaving a barren desert.

Mining in the Great Basin

The skyrocketing demand for lithium, one of the minerals needed for the production of electric cars, is based on the misperception that green technology helps the planet. Yet, as Argentine professor of thermodynamics and lithium mining expert Dr. Daniel Galli said at a scientific meeting, lithium mining is “really mining mountains of water.” Lithium Americas plans to pump massive amounts of water—up to 1.7 billion gallons (5,200 acre feet) annually—from an aquifer in the Quinn River Valley in Nevada’s Great Basin, the largest desert in the United States.

Thacker Pass, the site of the proposed 1.3 billion dollar open-pit lithium mine, would pump 1,200 acre feet more water per year than Peabody Energy Corporation extracted from the Navajo aquifer. Yet, the Quinn River aquifer is already over-allocated by fifty percent, and more than 10 billion gallons (30,000 acre feet) per year. Nevada is one of the driest states in the nation, and Thacker Pass is only the first of many proposed lithium mines in the state. Multiple active placer claims (7,996) have been located in 18 different hydrographic basins.

Deceit about water fuels these mines. Lithium Americas’ environmental impact assessment is grossly inaccurate, according to hydrologist Dr. Erick Powell. By classifying year-round creeks as “ephemeral” and underreporting the flow rate of 14 springs, Lithium Americas is claiming there is less water in the area than there actually is. This masks the real effects the mine would have—drying up hundreds of square miles of land, drawing down the groundwater level, sucking water from neighboring aquifers—all while claiming its operations would have no effect.

Peabody Energy Corporation’s impact assessment similarly misrepresented how their withdrawals would harm the Navajo aquifer. Peabody Energy used a flawed method to measure the withdrawals, according to former National Science Research Fellow Daniel Higgins. Now Navajo Nation wells require drilling down 2,000–3,000 feet, and the water is depressurized and slow to flow to the surface.

Thacker Pass lithium mine would pump groundwater at a disturbing rate, up to 3,250 gallons per minute. Once used, wastewater would contaminate local groundwater with dangerous heavy metals, including a “plume” of antimony that would last at least 300 years. Lithium Americas plans to dig the mine deeper than the groundwater level and keep it dry by continuously pumping water out, but when the pumping stops, groundwater would seep back in, picking up the toxins.

It hurts me to think about this. I imagine water being rapidly extracted from my own body, my bloodstream poisoned. The best tasting water rises to the surface when it is ready, after gestating as long as it likes in the dark Earth. Springs are sacred. When I feel welcome, I place my lips on the earthy surface and fill my mouth with their sweet flavor and vibrant texture.

Mining in the Atacama Desert

Thirteen thousand feet above sea level, the indigenous Atacamas people live in the Atacama Desert, the most arid desert in the world and the driest place on Earth. For millennia, they have used their scarce supply of water and sparse terrain carefully. Their laws and spirituality have always been intertwined with the health and well-being of the land and water. Living in mud-brick homes, pack animals, llama and alpaca, provide them with meat, hide, and wool.

But lithium lies beneath their ancestral land. Since 1980, mining companies have made billions in the Salar de Atacama region in Chile, where lithium mining now consumes sixty-five percent of the water. Some local communities need to have water driven in, and other villagers have been forced to abandon their settlements. There is no longer enough water to graze their animals. Beautiful lagoons hundreds of flamingos call home have gone dry. The birds have disappeared, and the ground is hard and cracked.

In addition to the Thacker Pass mine proposal, Lithium Americas has a mine in the Atacama Desert, a joint Canadian-Chilean venture named Minera Exar in the Cauchari-Olaroz basin in Jujuy, Argentina. Digging for lithium began in Jujuy in 2015, and there is already irreversible damage, according to a 2018 hydrology report. Watering holes have gone dry, and indigenous leaders are scared that soon there will be nothing left.

Even more water is needed to mine the traces of lithium found in brine than in an open-pit mine. At the Sales de Jujuy plant, the wells pump at a rate of more than two million gallons per day, even though this region receives less than four inches of rain a year. Pumping water from brine aquifers decreases the amount of fresh groundwater. Freshwater refills the spaces emptied by brine pumping and is irreversibly mixed with brine and salinized.

The Sanctity of Water

As a river guide, I live close to water. Swallowed by its wild beauty, I am restored to a healthier existence. Far from roads, cars, and cities, I watch water swirl around rocks or ripple over sand. I merge with its generous flow, floating through mountains, forest, or canyon. Rivers teach me how to listen to the currents—whether they cascade in a playful bubble, swell in a loud rush, or ebb in a gentle silence—for clues about what lies ahead.

The indigenous Atacamas peoples understand that water is sacred and have purposefully protected it for centuries. Rather than looking at how nature can be used, our culture needs to emulate the Atacamas peoples and develop the capacity to consider its obligations around water. Instead of electric cars, what we need is an ethical approach to our relationship with the land. Honoring the rights of water, species, and ecosystems is the foundation of a sustainable society. Decisions can be made based on knowledge of the land, weather patterns, and messages from nature.

For millennia, indigenous peoples have perceived water, animals, and mountains as sentient. If humans today could recognize their intelligence, perhaps they would understand that underground reservoirs have a value and purpose, beyond humans. When I enter a cave, I am walking into a living being. My eyes adjust to the dark. Pressing my hand against the wall, I steady myself on the uneven ground, hidden by varying amounts of water. Pausing, I listen to a soft dripping noise, echoing like a heartbeat as dew slides off the rocks. I can almost hear the cave breathing.

The life-giving waters of aquifers keep everything alive, but live unseen under the ground. As a soul guide, I invite people to be nourished by the visions of their dreams, a parallel world that is also seemingly invisible. Our dominant culture dismisses the value of these perceptions, just as it usurps water by disregarding natural cycles. Yet to create a sustainable world, humans need to be able to listen to nature and their dreams. The depths of our souls are inextricably linked to the ancient waters that flow underground. Dreams arise like springs from an aquifer, seeding our visionary potential, expanding our consciousness, and revealing other ways to live, radically different than empire.

Water Bearers

I set my backpack down on a high sandstone cliff overlooking a large watering hole. Ten feet below the hole, the red rock canyon drops into a much larger pool. My friend hikes down to it, filling her cookpot with water. She balances it atop her head on the way up, moving her hips to keep the pot steady. Arriving back, she pours the water into the smaller hole from which we drink and returns to the large pool to gather more.

Women in all societies have carried water throughout history. In many rural communities, they still spend much of the day gathering it. Sherri Mitchell of the Penobscot Nation calls women “the water bearers of the Universe.” The cycles in a woman’s body move in relation with the Earth’s tides, guiding them to nourish and protect the waters of Earth. We all need to become water bearers now.

Indigenous peoples, who have always been the Earth’s greatest defenders, protect eighty percent of global diversity, even though they comprise less than five percent of the world’s population. They understand water is sacred, and the world’s groundwater systems must be defended. For six years, indigenous peoples have been fighting to prevent lithium mining in the Salinas Grandes salt flats, in Jujuy, Argentina. Five hundred indigenous people camped on the land with signs: “No to lithium. Yes, to water and life in our territories.”

In February 2021, President Biden signed executive orders supporting the domestic mining of “critical” minerals like lithium, but two lawsuits, one by five Nevada-based conservation groups, have been filed against the Bureau of Land Management for approving the Thacker Pass lithium mine. Environmentalists Max Wilbert and Will Falk are organizing a protest to protect Thacker Pass. Local residents, including Northern Paiute and Western Shoshone peoples, are speaking out, fighting to protect their land and water.

We can see when a river runs dry, but most people are not aware of the invisible, slow-burning disaster happening under the ground. Some say those who oppose lithium mining should give up cell phones. If that is true, perhaps those who favor mines should give up drinking water. Protecting water needs to be at the center of any plan for a sustainable future.

The “fossil water” found in deserts should be used only in emergency, certainly not for mining. Sickened by corporate water grabbing, I support those trying to stop Thacker Pass Lithium mine and aim to join them. The aquifers there have nurtured so many for so long—eagles, pronghorn antelope, mule deer, old-growth sagebrush, hawks, falcons, sage-grouse, and Lahontan cutthroat trout. I pray these sacred wombs of the Earth can live on to nourish all of life.

For more on the issue:

The Green Flame Podcast: Protect Thacker Pass [Dispatches from Thacker Pass]

The Green Flame Podcast: Protect Thacker Pass [Dispatches from Thacker Pass]

Protect Thacker Pass with activists Max Wilbert, Will Falk and Rebecca Wildbear

Activists aiming to stop Lithium Americas’ Thacker Pass open-pit lithium mine – what would be the United States’ largest lithium mine, supplying up to 25% of the world’s lithium – launched a permanent protest encampment hours after the Bureau of Land Management gave final approval to the mine on January 15.

The Green Flame brings you the voices of land protectors Will Falk and Max Wilbert who mean to stay for as long as it takes to protect this old-growth sagebrush mountainside despite winter conditions at Thacker Pass. Rebecca Wildbear, river and soul guide, lover of the wild, joins us in honoring and calling for defense of the Great Basin, Thacker Pass and the whole of wild creation. Many thanks to Green Flame sound editor Iona and to the many non-human voices – Golden Eagle, Coyote, and Greater Sage Grouse – speaking to us in this Protect Thacker Pass episode of the Green Flame.

You can find out more and support Thacker Pass:

Haunted By The Songs of the Dead

Haunted By The Songs of the Dead

Two hundred species went extinct today. The last individual from each of these 200 species dies each day. Merely fifteen years ago, that number was 150. While extinctions are a natural process, the scale of the current mass extinction is a direct result of industrial civilization.
In this article, Rebecca writes about her grief for all her lost kins, and about some groups who are actively working to save some of the remaining ones.

Featured image: By Doug Van Houten

By Rebecca Wildbear

Hearing the last song of a male Kauai ‘O’o tears me up. He was singing for a female who will never come. Now his lovely voice is gone too. I cry for him, and for all the species we have lost. First listed as endangered in 1967, the Kauai ‘O’o lived in the forests of Kaua’i, and was extinct 20 years later, after their habitat was destroyed by human activity.
One in a million species expires naturally each year, but now extinctions are happening 1,000 times faster. Humans are driving species extinct more rapidly than ever before in the history of the planet. Since the dawn of industrial civilization, we have lost eighty-three percent of wild mammals and fifty percent of plants, and a million more species are at risk —all largely as a result of human actions.

Everywhere there is life, there is song.

The planet is always singing. Humans are meant to live in sync, our unique note resounding within the symphony. Instead, our dominant culture is killing all the other voices, one by one, as if removing instruments from an orchestra. Some birds have forgotten their song, like the once abundant regent honeyeater. Now critically endangered, they are unable to find other honeyeaters and hear their songs.

The world needs the bitter and resonant cry of every creature, even our own deep voices, attuning with the song of the world. As a wilderness and soul guide, I invite people to listen to the voices of all the others and remember their own unique notes, the mythic purpose of their souls. I was made for this work. Yet it is not enough to stop the destruction of the last remaining wild species.


Did the Kauai ‘O’o know he was calling out to an empty world?  “The costs of civilization are too high,” his song pierces me. “Remember the connection we once had.” The first human words sounded like birds. Humans and birds evolved from a common ancestor, a reptile millions of years ago. Both grew to form complex vocalizations and social groups. Rare whistling languages, often called bird languages, used to be found all over the world. The truest voices of our ancestors, they are now heard only in a handful of places with scattered settlements or mountainous terrain.

In south-western Costa Rica, I lived amongst the Guaymi people in rustic dwellings, eating home-grown rice and beans in banana leaves. We taught each other, in Spanish, our first languages. When the Guaymi whistled to each other, the sound traveled a great distance through the rainforest. They looked beautiful with their heads and bodies vibrating, faces and lips moving wildly to form the unusual sounds.

In the foothills of the Himalayas, the Hmong people speak in whistles. In their courtship rituals, now rarely-performed, boys would wander through nearby villages at nightfall, whistling poetry. If a girl responded, the dialogue would continue. The lovers added nonsense syllables to assure the secrecy of their melody.


“Is anyone alive out there?” the Kauai ‘O’o sings, but there is no reply, nor will there ever be again. Is he sorrowful? That is what I feel when I sense what is happening and read things like of all the mammals now on Earth, ninety-six percent are livestock and humans—only four percent are wild mammals.

Tears flow. I long for a world more alive than the one we inhabit. For rivers to run clear and flocks of birds to fill the sky. Ancient trees to cover the land. Oceans to teem with whales and coral. For machines that mine coal, oil, and trees to be dismantled. For people to stop extracting and start honoring. For lost cultures and species to return, and be driven out no more.

Longing is prayer, and prayer is a conversation. If we listen to nature and our dreams, we can be guided towards the actions that matter most. If we ask and await the mystery, we can receive a response and then embody what is asked. Prayer is what we become when we offer our lives in creative service.

Will civilization collapse first, before the biosphere?

Or after all species and wild places are already gone? Species can’t survive without unspoiled habitat, but there is less every day. Even in the wake of late-stage global capitalism, I long for a sustainable society, rooted in an ethical approach in its relationship with the land, honoring the voices of river, bird, rock, and tree.

These collaborative relationships have existed for millennium. The Yao people still team up with the honeyguide bird in sub-Saharan Africa to hunt for honey. Using a series of special chirps, humans and birds communicate with each other. The honeyguide birds lead the way to hidden beehives, and the Yao people share the sweetness with their avian friends.


Is the Kauai ‘O’o aware this is his last message to the world? What will humanity’s last song be?  The last passenger pigeon died in 1914 at the Cincinnati Zoo. She had a palsy that made her tremble and never laid a fertile egg in her life. In the 19th century, passenger pigeon migrations darkened the sky. Flocks took hours to pass and were so loud that human conversation was impossible. These birds sustained people through the winter. By the mid-1890’s, flock sizes numbered in the dozens rather than hundreds of billions.

Passenger pigeons were hunted out of existence. After the invention of the telegraph and the railroad, the commercial pigeon industry boomed. Hunters killed them in their nesting grounds and harvested the squabs. No one stopped when their numbers crashed. People slaughtered them until the end. In the 19th century, people did not believe they could drive a species to extinction. This seems to mirror a denial still present today. Most people do not believe humans are destroying the biosphere of the living planet.

“People need these jobs,” the passenger pigeon industry said to avoid restrictions on hunting. Industries today make similar claims, as their mines, dams, and industrial agriculture clear cut and pave over ecosystems, poison rivers and the sea, and dry up underground aquifers.

Indigenous peoples have always been the Earth’s greatest defenders.

Indigenous people protect eighty percent of global diversity, even though they comprise less than five percent of the world’s population. The Earth needs more people to stand in solidarity. I wonder if the Kauai ‘O’o felt as desperate as I do, if he understood that the planet is being plundered. I imagine myself singing alongside him, calling out—are you out there? What will you do to protect the beloved Earth?

Industry plans to destroy a critical corridor for pronghorn antelope and mule deer, nesting ground for golden eagles, ferruginous hawks, and prairie falcons. Lithium Americas is slated to build a lithium mine on Thacker Pass. They say it will provide jobs. Falsely, they call it green to manufacture belief that it somehow will not destroy the biosphere. Five to eight percent of the global population of endangered sage-grouse live there.

The watershed is home to the threatened Lahontan cutthroat trout and the endemic King’s River pryg. I invite you to join environmentalists Max Wilbert and Will Falk in protesting the mine. I will be joining them the last two weeks of April.

The songs of eagles, hawks, falcons, and sagebrush are priceless and irreplaceable.

This is the video that inspired Rebecca’s article.

Honor and Material Support

Honor and Material Support

What will it take to save the living planet? What will turn the tide of climate change and lead to forests rising again? What will defeat or transform the empire that is consuming our living world?

How can we win?

These are the largest and most important questions we face, and they are our mission here at Deep Green Resistance. We dedicate ourselves, relentlessly, to pursuing answers to these questions. And answers we have found—some of them. History and analysis teaches us that transformative, revolutionary political movements rise and fall with cultures of resistance: the people and communities that provide support, material aid, and solidarity to fuel movements.

You are part of this culture of resistance, and we salute you. We thank you for your solidarity, your material aid, and your support. We are humbled by our community: your dedication, your work ethic, your experience, your power, your passion.

Last Sunday, November 22nd, we hosted a 4-hour live streaming event called “Drawing The Line: Stopping the Murder of the Planet,” and we received an outpouring of support. We have raised over $5,000 USD, which for a small grassroots organization like us is a significant portion of our budget. If you didn’t have a chance to donate yet, it’s not too late, and we still very much need support. We hoped to raise $15k, and are still operating in the red. If you can support us, please visit this link to donate, or this link to sign up for monthly contributions. As always, you can contact us to discuss other options.

You can watch the recording of the event here:


We want to thank everyone who contributed to us last week, and over all the years. We are so grateful for the support we receive from our readers, friends, family, donors, and allies. Our work is truly a group effort, and support is truly an essential part of this.

Image: Mother bear and cubs in the redwoods, photographed by Derrick Jensen.

SUNDAY: Live Event with Derrick Jensen, Lierre Keith, and Chris Hedges

SUNDAY: Live Event with Derrick Jensen, Lierre Keith, and Chris Hedges

REMINDER: This Sunday, November 22nd, join us for a live streaming event—Drawing the Line: Stopping the Murder of the Planet—featuring Derrick Jensen, Lierre Keith, Chris Hedges, and grassroots activists from around the world.

The event will begin at 1pm Pacific (2100 UTC) and will be live streamed at

Event Schedule

This Sunday, we ask: where do you draw the line? What is the threshold at which you will fight for the living planet? And how shall we fight?

This event will introduce you to on-the-ground campaigns being waged around the planet, introduce various strategies for effective organizing, rebut false solutions through readings of the forthcoming book Bright Green Lies: How the Environmental Movement Lost Its Way and What We Can Do About It, and discuss philosophy of resistance. There will be opportunities to ask questions and participate in dialogue during the event.

Donate to Support the Movement

The mainstream environmental movement is funded mainly by foundations which don’t want foundational or revolutionary change. Radical organizations like Deep Green Resistance therefore rely on individual donors to support activism around the world, which is why Drawing the Line is also a fundraiser. We’re trying to raise funds to support global community organizing via our chapters, fund mutual aid and direct action campaigns, and make our core outreach and organizational work possible.

Whether or not you are in a financial position to donate, we hope you will join us on November 22nd for this event! There will be a chance to ask questions and participate in dialogue. We hope to see you on Sunday.