The New York Times’ Jon Gertner writes of the water crisis in the West in a long and insightful piece The Future is Drying Up. No mention of mining. And certainly no mention of the 2003 or 2007 Southern California fires. That leaves the way clear for us to consider the implications of postulated, potential, theoretical, feared and/or actual water shortages on mining. Before we do, just this observation: maybe there really is no crisis; maybe this is all just a journalists’ plot to create subject matter to write about.

At the 2007 Rocky Mountain Mineral Law Institute, Arlene Kwasniak of the University of Calgary surveyed water rights law in the west of the United States and Canada. She reviewed the impending shortages of water in these regions; and she noted that there are innovative technical and engineering ways to squeeze more water out of limited supplies. The problem she told us is that, at least in Alberta, where there is probably the greatest need for more water for mining than is available, the law is not up to the task. She proposed a whole-scale revision of Alberta water rights law, much like was done recently in Queensland to begin to address the impending water shortages that will impede profitable mining.

This pretty much sums it up: water is underpriced, overused, and illogically regulated; each mine has a unique water balance issue and technological response to excess or insufficient water. While most mine need to account fro their water balance, by comparison with agriculture they have a long way to go to catch up. Here is a table of use for Australia:

Water consumption by economic sector and industry, by jurisdiction in Australia for 2004-05

State or Territory

ACT

NSW

NT

QLD

SA

TAS

VIC

WA

Australia

Water consumption in 2004–05 (Gigalitres)

Agriculture

1

4,133

47

2,916

1,020

258

3,281

535

12,191

Forestry and fishing

<1

11

<1

3

<1

4

8

25

52

Mining

<1

63

17

83

19

16

32

183

413

Manufacturing

<1

126

6

158

55

49

114

81

589

Electricity and gas supply

-

76

1

81

3

<1

99

13

271

Water supply

5

631

8

426

71

20

793

128

2,083

Other

17

310

30

201

52

18

262

168

1,059

House hold

31

573

31

493

144

69

405

362

2,108

Total

56

5,922

141

4,361

1365

434

4,993

1495

18,767

Water consumption in 2000–01 (GL)

Total

8,783

134

4,267

1,383

408

5,375

1,353

21,703

Source: Water Account, Australia, 2004–05
Note: Forestry and fishing includes services to agriculture. Mining includes the following categories: coal mining, oils and gas extraction, metal or mining, other mining, and services to mining (comprises construction material mining)

Now it may be true that mines, at least in Australia, are not the largest water users. It does not follow, however, that mines do not and cannot significantly affect the quality of water. Hence every mine should quantify its water balance and its associated chemical mass balance, and seek to limit the potential for discharge of affected waters, whether in a net precipitation or net evaporation part of the world.