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Ban on Mining Near the Grand Canyon, But No Easy Way Around the Water and Energy Nexus

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Grand Canyon, Arizona. NGS Stock Photo by Michael Nichols

In announcing a long-term ban on uranium and other mining around the Grand Canyon, U.S. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar emphasized a link that is all too clear to anyone following energy news.

Whether the subject is hydraulic fracturing, or tar sands, or oil spills, or power plant impacts, the connection between water and energy is one of the most difficult challenges faced on the planet.

“We can no longer afford to turn our back on the rivers of America,” Salazar said, announcing protection for a 1-million acre (405,000-hectare) buffer around the spectacular gorge for the next 20 years, the longest time allowable under the law.

“All waters ultimately flow into one,” Salazar said. “The waters that roar through the canyon feed our crops, and provide the water that flows through our faucets. We must do everything we can to protect water and watersheds from which they spring.” (Here is a 12-minute Interior Department video on the canyon, and video of Salazar’s announcement.)

The decision is a long-term extension of moratorium that the Obama administration instituted in 2009, overturning a Bush administration policy that had encouraged new uranium claims when the price of the element that fuels nuclear power plants soared in 2006 and 2007. Most of the interest in uranium claims around the Grand Canyon came from foreign interests, like Vane Minerals of the United Kingdom; Rosatom, Russia’s state atomic energy corporation; and South Korea’s state-owned utility. As the New York Times noted in an editorial last year, the ban did not impact U.S. power plants, which draw most of their fuel supply from mines in Wyoming and New Mexico.

Still, the decision may not be the last word on the Grand Canyon; Democratic Congressman Raul Grijalva of Arizona, in remarks before Salazar’s announcement, said he expected efforts on Capitol Hill to overturn the decision. Last year, House Republicans tried unsuccessfully to force an opening to mining claims in the U.S. budget bill, and Senator John McCain of Arizona led a group of Western Republicans in sponsored legislation to ensure access for “reasonable and safe uranium mining uses” around the canyon.

Whether it is at the Grand Canyon, source of water for 20 million people, or the small aquifers that feed household wells in small communities in fracking areas, the entire world is grappling with the issue of protection of fresh water from pollution as we drill deeper for fuel. And the solutions available today for increasing supplies of fresh water, like pumping and desalination, require large amounts of energy. This was a point made last year when the International Energy Agency, the World Business Council on Sustainable Development, and the oil giant Shell* last year announced they would initiate a study on water use in the energy industry, with an eye to technological solutions to address both fresh water needs and greenhouse gas emissions.  California, where 20 percent of electricity use is for water consumption and delivery, also has studied the issue extensively, but there is no easy way around the energy-water nexus.

Since Salazar made his announcement here at National Geographic’s headquarters, I thought I’d pull together just a small sample of the related Grand Canyon and fresh water information and images on our web site:

Interactive map of the Grand Canyon, highlighting the pressures it faces, partly due to use for energy.

Travel photo gallery of the Canyon, which attracts 4 million tourists each year.

Information on National Geographic’s freshwater initiative.

Shell is sponsor of National Geographic’s Great Energy Challenge initiative. National Geographic maintains autonomy over content.