By: Jack Stauss

Paradox Formation 

The canyon country surrounding the Colorado River near Moab is unparalleled in its awe-striking grandeur. Red rock crumbles and erodes into countless terraces stepping down to another level out of site. Castle-like formations protrude from the layers, punctuating the erosion. And, calcite-rich streaks like long golden highways stripe the otherwise scarlet, tan, and grays of the canyons. 

The fins, arches, and sharp-edged walls of rock are part of the Paradox Formation: ancient sea beds layered on one another creating geological anomalies that over time have warped and changed into the iconic landscape we know today. Salt tectonics shifted from millennia of pressure to create the grabens and labyrinths of Canyonlands and Arches. Because of the minerals in the Paradox Formation, the groundwater is brine-rich with several important resources, namely lithium. 

Ultimately, the land falls away into the mighty Colorado River – the major drainage for the Rocky Mountains and the West. It cuts its way through the Paradox: churning, raging, and quietly flowing 1,700 miles, creating the iconic landscapes that stir the soul. 

Scenic Canyonlands on a 3 day colorado river rafting trip in Cataract

Canyonlands National Park from the river

A sordid history and a stormy future

Besides their vast wilderness, ecosystem, and recreational benefits, these places have also been subject to 150 years of economic development. From ranching and logging to mineral extraction, companies have been exploiting natural resources in this fragile world. 

As the world slowly transitions away from fossil fuels, new energy sources to power an electrified world have become the current focus of big business across the West. Today, the lithium and other rare earth minerals found in the Paradox Formation will be integral in building batteries for electric vehicles. In other states, mines have already opened, and people are already in heated debates about how to extract minerals and at what expense. Oak Flat, Arizona is a prime example of this. A wild desert landscape punctuated by stone towers, the Apache have called the land home for time immemorial. Underneath the land is a rich deposit of copper which has been the subject of interest to Rio Tinto, one of the world’s largest mining companies. If they were allowed to mine the region, it would irrevocably change the Apache’s connection to the place and to their ancestors. 

In canyon country, an Australian development company, Anson Resources, has commenced study in and the first steps to develop areas around Canyonlands National Park and Dead Horse Point State Park for its lithium. Along the Colorado Plateau, tribes like the Navajo have had their lands exploited and degraded by fossil fuel and uranium extraction and processing. The region in which Anson plans to drill is rich with Ancestral Puebloan cultural sites, artifacts, and needs to be treated with the utmost respect.

Ancestral indigenous lands have long been subject to exploitation, and have long been left out of planning processes. As we transition to this new phase of land use and exploitation we must uplift native voices to the same level that we have long held other needs like that of mineral extraction or recreation. 

Canyonlands Maze Biking Trip Red Rock

View of Canyonlands from a bike trip through The Maze

“Whiskey is for drinking, water is for fighting”

Using formerly shuttered mines, Anson has drilled down into the Paradox Formation and found that the brine is rich with lithium. The process of extraction will require Colorado River rights in the form of groundwater. They have worked with Wayne County (outside of the counties they hope to drill in) to lease 2,500 acre-feet of water over 23 years to pump out of 9,000 foot deep wells they will drill. They will then process this water, separating out the valuable lithium. Once processed, they claim that they will return 80% of the water to the Colorado River. 

Another subsidiary of Anson also filed for another 13,755 acre-feet of water that they would own, per the Salt Lake Tribune’s reporting on the issue. An acre foot is enough water to provide water for a household of four for a year. In a moment when the Colorado River and its management are at a reckoning due to climate change and supply and demand issues, it seems irresponsible to divert more water out of the Basin, as the recycling technology is unproven on a commercial scale.  

Nate Blouin, a Utah State Senator, says that while he recognizes the need to transition to lithium powered batteries, safeguards need to be put in place. He believes that this project as it currently stands is “dead on arrival” without proper studies being done on the technology proposed.

In order for Anson to get their project off the ground, the state engineers must complete a full survey of their plan to make sure the water being pulled from their mines will not contaminate the Colorado River, and that the water used will return to the system. While we wait and see what the managers decide to do, Anson has moved ahead on their projects by expanding mine leasing around Green River, Utah and built a processing facility there. 

The Colorado River is one of the most important resources, ecosystems, and geological wonders of the American West. Its water has been the topic of debate since Euro-American settlement and this water allotment trading for the sake of lithium development is just the most recent example of its sordid history.  

Another Paradox 

While my personal belief is that the Colorado River and its surrounding environment is too precious and has been subject to too much development over the years to warrant more industry, the reality is our current society needs lithium to transition away from fossil fuels. Again from Senator Blouin, “the alternative to me is a failure of the clean energy industry and spiraling climate change that takes the Colorado River and pretty much every other natural resource down with it.”

It will be imperative as we continue to mine for and build batteries for an electrified world that we do it in a way that protects the natural environment. But, as we move into this future our policy makers, managers, and advocates must ensure there are guardrails on where this sort of industry can happen, and at what expense. We must ask ourselves, which areas do we want to restore and protect, and which areas will be given over to the sacrifice of extraction?

Jack Stauss WriterJack Stauss moved to Salt Lake City in 2008 in pursuit of big mountains and wide-open spaces. He has spent the last several years both enjoying and advocating for public lands and free-flowing rivers. While he’s not typing on his keyboard, he will be backcountry skiing in the Wasatch or exploring Utah’s wild deserts. Read some of his environmental musings at medium.com/@jack.stauss or follow him at @jackstauss on Instagram.