With a trial of Gen. Augusto Pinochet increasingly unlikely here, victims of the Chilean military’s 17-year dictatorship are now pressing legal actions in both Chilean and American courts against Henry A. Kissinger and other Nixon administration officials who supported plots to overthrow Salvador Allende Gossens, the Socialist president, in the early 1970’s.
In perhaps the most prominent of the cases, an investigating judge here has formally asked Mr. Kissinger, a former national security adviser and secretary of state, and Nathaniel Davis, the American ambassador to Chile at the time, to respond to questions about the killing of an American citizen, Charles Horman, after the deadly military coup that brought General Pinochet to power on Sept. 11, 1973.
General Pinochet, now 85, ruled Chile until 1990. He was arrested in London in 1998 on a Spanish warrant charging him with human rights violations. After 16 months in custody, General Pinochet was released by Britain because of his declining health. Although he was arrested in Santiago in 2000, he was ruled mentally incompetent to stand trial.
The death of Mr. Horman, a filmmaker and journalist, was the subject of the 1982 movie ”Missing.” A civil suit that his widow, Joyce Horman, filed in the United States was withdrawn after she could not obtain access to relevant American government documents. But the initiation of legal action here against General Pinochet and the declassification of some American documents led her to file a new suit here 15 months ago.
Last fall, after gaining approval from Chile’s Supreme Court, Judge Juan Guzmán, who is also handling the Pinochet case, submitted 17 questions in the Horman case to American authorities. An American Embassy official here confirmed that the document, known as a letter rogatory, has been received in Washington, but said it has not yet been answered and that he did not know if or when there would be a response.
”We’re pressing the case in Chile because this is the first opportunity we have had to see if there is still some real evidence there,” Mrs. Horman said by telephone from New York. ”But the letters rogatory seem to be in a paralyzed state.”
William Rogers, Mr. Kissinger’s lawyer, said in a letter that because the investigations in Chile and elsewhere related to Mr. Kissinger ”in his capacity as secretary of state,” the Department of State should respond to the issues that have been raised. He added that Mr. Kissinger is willing to ”contribute what he can from his memory of those distant events,” but did not say how or where that would occur.
Relatives of Gen. René Schneider, commander of the Chilean Armed Forces when he was assassinated in Oct. 1970 by other military officers, have taken a different approach than Mrs. Horman. Alleging summary execution, assault and civil rights violations, they filed a $3 million civil suit in Washington last fall against Mr. Kissinger, Richard M. Helms, the former director of the Central Intelligence Agency, and other Nixon-era officials who, according to declassified United States documents, were involved in plotting a military coup to keep Mr. Allende from power.
In his books, Mr. Kissinger has acknowledged that he initially followed Mr. Nixon’s orders in Sept. 1970 to organize a coup, but he also says that he ordered the effort shut down a month later. The government documents, however, indicate that the C.I.A. continued to encourage a coup here and also provided money to military officers who had been jailed for General Schneider’s death.
”My father was neither for or against Allende, but a constitutionalist who believed that the winner of the election should take office,” René Schneider Jr. said. ”That made him an obstacle to Mr. Kissinger and the Nixon government, and so they conspired with generals here to carry out the attack on my father and to plot a coup attempt.”
In another action, human rights lawyers here have filed a criminal complaint against Mr. Kissinger and other American officials, accusing them of helping organize the covert regional program of political repression called Operation Condor. As part of that plan, right-wing military dictatorships in Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Paraguay and Uruguay coordinated efforts throughout the 1970’s to kidnap and kill hundreds of their exiled political opponents.
Argentina has also begun an investigation into American support for and involvement in Operation Condor. A judge there, Rodolfo Cancioba Corral, has said he regards Mr. Kissinger as a potential ”defendant or suspect.” But lawyers say it is virtually impossible for a foreign court to compel former American officials to answer a summons.
During a visit by Mr. Kissinger to France last year, for instance, a judge there sent police officers to his Paris hotel to serve him with a request to answer questions about American involvement in the Chilean coup, in which French citizens also disappeared. But Mr. Kissinger refused to respond to the subpoena, referred the matter to the State Department, and flew on to Italy.
”I think it is clear that Kissinger is now one of many, many officials who have to think twice before they travel,” said Bruce Broomhall, director of the international justice program at the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights. ”It will be surprising to many that an American secretary of state is among that group, but times have certainly changed” as a result of the Pinochet case, he said.
The uproar appears to have forced Mr. Kissinger to cancel a trip to Brazil. He was scheduled to make a speech and receive a government medal in São Paulo on March 13, but withdrew after leftist groups there said they would demonstrate against him and also called on judges and prosecutors to detain him for questioning about Operation Condor.
A spokeswoman for Kissinger Associates in New York attributed the change of plans to a ”scheduling conflict.” But the organizer of the event, Rabbi Henry Sobel of the Congregacão Israelita Paulista, said ”the situation had become politically uncomfortable” both for Mr. Kissinger and local Jewish community leaders who had invited him.
”I spoke with him many times on the telephone and made it very clear to him what was happening behind the scenes, and he was very sensitive to that,” Rabbi Sobel said in a telephone interview. ”This was a way to avoid any problems or embarrassment for him and for us.”
It’s big news, but probably won’t be enough to save the river system
The News: Arizona, California, and Nevada have come up with a landmark agreement to slash their consumption of Colorado River water by 3 million acre-feet in coming years. The Colorado River and its reservoirs are saved!
The Buzzkill: Nope. Not quite.
Yes, the three Lower Basin states came up with an agreement to cut water use substantially. Yes, it’s a breakthrough (as any such agreement would be). But no, it won’t be enough to save the Colorado River if the climatic conditions of the last couple decades persist or worsen. Plus, the proposed cuts are only for the next few years. What then?
The Background: For those who may have forgotten, the 1922 Colorado River Compact divvied up the river between the Upper and Lower Basin states (Mexico was included in the 1940s). The problem: The 16.5 million acre-feet pie they parceled out was bigger than what actually existed—even back then. They assumed the river carried about 20 million acre-feet each year, on average. In fact, it was more like 14 million acre-feet, so they were already in debt to reality when the Compact was signed. Oof.
In the decades since, the population of all of the states burgeoned and water consumption also increased. Meanwhile, after the wet and wild 1980s, long-term drought and warmer temperatures diminished the river and the reservoirs that were supposed to carry the users over during dry years. Last summer it looked like Lake Powell might drop below minimum power pool, or the level needed to allow water to flow through the hydroelectricity-generating turbines, within a couple of years. Losing hydropower is one thing, but losing the ability to release water through the penstocks is another, with its own dire ramifications.
That prompted federal water officials to call on the states to cut consumption by 2 million to 4 million acre-feet per year, or else they would implement the cuts themselves. The states blew past deadlines without an agreement until finally, last month, the Bureau of Reclamation presented two alternatives:
Cut Lower Basin use according to the concept of priority (meaning Arizona would take the biggest cuts); or,The matrix for the Bureau of Reclamation’s priority-based alternative, which would burden Arizona with the biggest cuts and barely lean on California at all. USBR.
Cut a flat percentage of each state’s water use (meaning California would take the biggest cuts).The matrix for the Bureau of Reclamation’s flat percentage-based alternative, which would result in larger volume cuts for California. USBR.
The prospect apparently was enough to scare the bejeezus out of the states, pushing them back to the negotiating table where they came up with this week’s deal. Details so far are sketchy, but here’s what we know:
The Lower Basin states together will cut consumption by 3 million acre-feet over the 2023-2026 period, with at least 1.5 million acre-feet in cuts coming by the end of 2024 (there is no indication of how these cuts will be distributed across the states, but the Washington Postreports California will bear about half the cuts);
Up to 2.3 million acre-feet of those cuts will be federally compensated by about $1.2 billion in Inflation Reduction Act funds. Most likely this means that farmers will be paid not to irrigate their crops.
So what’s wrong with this deal? I’ll admit that when I first read the stories on this, I was pretty damned impressed: 3 million acre-feet is good! Thing is, all those cuts are spread out over three years, meaning it’s only about 1 million acre-feet per year. That’s only half the minimum amount of cuts the feds say are needed to shore up the river system and its reservoirs. It just won’t cut it, so to speak, if the drying trend continues.
Furthermore, the deal clearly is meant only to be temporary — a stopgap, a band-aid — that runs out in three years. What happens then? Even if the agreement were to be extended, where would the billions of dollars come from to keep paying the farmers not to irrigate? What if the Republicans’ obstructive ways nix the payments? And what about the additional 700,000 acre-feet of cuts promised? Where will they come from? Or will that require a whole new round of negotiations?
I don’t want to be a party pooper. It’s great that the states came to an agreement and, yes, it is a solution, of sorts. But it’s not the sustainable, permanent one that’s necessary.
But who knows? Maybe this past wet winter and huge runoff isn’t an anomaly. Maybe it’s the new normal and big rains and snows will come regularly over the next 20 years, filling up the reservoirs, saturating the soil, and swelling the Colorado River into the muddy monster of yore. Maybe we won’t need these cuts after all. But I sure as heck wouldn’t bank on it.
Arizona, California and Nevada have agreed to take less water from the drought-strained Colorado River, a breakthrough agreement that, for now, keeps the river from falling so low that it would jeopardize water supply for major Western cities like Phoenix and Los Angeles as well as for some of America’s most productive farmland.
The agreement, announced Monday, calls for the federal government to pay about $1.2 billion to irrigation districts, cities and Native American tribes in the three states if they temporarily use less water. The states have also agreed to make additional cuts beyond that amount to generate the total reductions needed to prevent the collapse of the river.
Taken together, those reductions would amount to about 13 percent of the total water use in the lower Colorado Basin — among the most aggressive ever experienced in the region, and likely to require significant water restrictions for residential and agriculture uses.
The Colorado River supplies drinking water to 40 million Americans in seven states as well as part of Mexico and irrigates 5.5 million acres of farmland. The electricity generated by dams on the river’s two main reservoirs, Lake Mead and Lake Powell, powers millions of homes and businesses.
But drought, population growth and climate change have dropped the river’s flows by one-third in recent years compared with historical averages, threatening to provoke a water and power catastrophe across the West.
California, Arizona and Nevada get their shares of water from Lake Mead, which is formed by the Colorado River at the Hoover Dam and is controlled by the federal government. The Bureau of Reclamation, an agency within the Interior Department, determines how much water each of the three states receives. The other states that depend on the Colorado get water directly from the river and its tributaries.
The agreement struck over the weekend runs only through the end of 2026, and still needs to be formally adopted by the federal government. At that point, all seven states that rely on the river — which include Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming — could face a deeper reckoning, as its decline is likely to continue.
The negotiations over the Colorado were spurred by a crisis: Last summer, the water levels in Lake Mead and Lake Powell, the two largest reservoirs along the river, fell enough that officials feared the hydroelectric turbines they powered might soon cease operating.
The story Susan Behery tells about dust blowing into Colorado from New Mexico and Arizona sounds almost Biblical, like cows dropping dead in their owners’ fields or swarms of locusts devouring their crops.
A hydraulic engineer for the Bureau of Reclamation in Durango, Behery says she once saw dirt falling from the sky in the manner of rain. It was so heavy, she said, it splatted when it hit the ground. When the storm that brought it moved on, a brown residue covered Behery’s car, her lawn furniture, her house. In fact, it covered the town of Durango, the town of Silverton and the San Juan Mountains, where Behery’s colleague, Jeff Derry, does the bulk of his work as the executive director and lead scientist for the Center for Snow and Avalanche Studies and its Dust on Snow program.
Behery says she and Derry work closely together. This time of year they talk by phone almost daily. That’s because Derry studies dust that travels to Colorado from northern New Mexico and Arizona. When it arrives here, in storms stopped short by the mountains, it settles in a distinct brown layer on the snow.
Derry’s main job is monitoring the dust layer (or layers) for water managers like Behery, because dust on snow is a major contributor to how much of the water in Colorado’s snowpack reaches the creeks, rivers and reservoirs that serve our state, and when the flows of those creeks and rivers reach their peak. That, in turn, impacts how Behery and her colleagues in water management control things like the levels of river water flowing into and out of reservoirs, of which Colorado has many.
The primary stem of the Colorado River has 15 dams and its tributaries have hundreds more. Each major tributary flows out of a river basin reliant on snow. “But we’ve been having these sporadic good precipitation years with lots of drought in between,” Behery says. And drought years lead to low snowpack, which, when coupled with dust, disrupts rivers.
When that happens, millions of people, animals and fish are directly impacted, says Behery. The vast majority don’t know it, Derry adds, but maybe they should.
According to a 2010 paper about the history of dust on snow by Thomas Painter, Jeffrey Deems and Jayne Belnap, climate models at that time predicted runoff losses of 7%-20% in this century due to human-induced climate warming.
Additionally, Derry says long-term trends based on data he has collected since 2003 show dust-on-snow is also wreaking havoc on flows in the Colorado River’s headwaters. But we can’t really stop dust from piling up on Colorado’s snowpack. And that’s a problem Derry says more people should know about.
Dust origination and politicization
The paper showing those haunting statistics about runoff losses also shows that by the late 1880s, decades prior to allocation of the Colorado River’s runoff between seven Western states in the 1920s, “a fivefold increase in dust loading from anthropologically disturbed soils in the southwest United States was decreasing snow albedo and shortening the duration of snow cover by several weeks.”
Understanding snow albedo takes some mental gymnastics. But as Derry puts it, when a dust layer settles on the snow, like a dark T-shirt, it absorbs the sun’s light and heat into the snowpack. And when the snow is free of dust, it reflects the light and heat back into the atmosphere. So high albedo leads to slower snowmelt and lower runoff, while low albedo leads to faster snowmelt and a higher runoff.
The paper also mentions dust shortening the duration of snow cover, and that’s a different process. Derry says as dust causes earlier snowmelt, plants and soil are exposed earlier in the spring. Increased exposure to the air and sun causes the soil to dry out through evapotranspiration, or the process by which water is transferred from the land to the atmosphere by evaporation from the soil and plants exhaling water vapor. “And that could have been water in the snow that would flow into streams,” he says.
The anthropologically disturbed soils of the 1800s and 1900s, however, were coming from poor farming techniques and vast numbers of cattle chewing up the landscape, Derry adds.
Jayne Belnap, a retired USGS soil ecologist with expertise in desert ecologies and grassland ecosystems, says those problems continue. “All low-elevation desert surfaces are stable until you disturb them,” she says. But when disturbance occurs —“by animals, bikes, cars, plows, feet,” she adds — the extremely fine soil that surfaces is perfect for flying on the wind to Colorado.
Desert surfaces aren’t naturally dusty places; they’ve just been grazed, plowed, recreated and prodded for oil and gas reserves to sandy soil devoid of nutrients, Belnap says. One solution to keep more soil intact is a change in government policy that holds whoever is degrading the soil accountable. Belnap says this includes anyone in the desert regions of northern New Mexico and Arizona who actively disturbs the protective surface of the desert. Derry adds that in the problem region, “there are a lot of federal land owners, and as far as I know, there’s no concerned effort to mitigate the problem.”
Then there’s the issue of liability, says Belnap.
“The soils between Tucson and Phoenix, which were plowed for cotton, went from coarse sand to silt. You can drive off the road, throw up a handful and it just hangs in the air,” she says. “When that’s disturbed, it blows across the highway and kills people. But in order to stabilize an area, the people in charge have to admit there’s a problem, and no one will. We finally got a congressman to get all upset about it, but if he says Joe rancher is creating a huge part of the problem, what’s Joe rancher gonna do? He’s gonna sue.”
What all of this amounts to, for now, at least, is people like Behery having to continue factoring dust into the way they manage Colorado water.
And in years like 2022, that meant being ready for some interesting flows.
Dust’s impact on Colorado’s water
In the spring of 2022, “the soil was ridiculously dry, the snowpack was terrible and windstorms blowing into Colorado from the south kicked all the dust up and deposited it all over our mountains,” Behery says.
That led to “snowpack running off early and in an extreme way, high-intensity, low-duration flows” and dropping river levels “that left us almost no base flows in the end of May-early June, when we had irrigation season coming online, which is when I have to release a lot of water,” she adds.
“So the severity of dust just really affects things. You never knew dirt could be so interesting, did you? People are like, ‘Dirt and dust. So icky.’”
But much rests on Behery’s releases of water from Navajo Reservoir, which spans the Colorado-New Mexico border southeast of Durango. Beneficiaries include endangered fish, which rely on certain flows to make it to their spawning grounds and to find food. Navajo Reservoir water also helps farmers downstream slake their crops and water their animals. And eventually, some flows into the San Juan River and on to the confluence with the Colorado River above Lake Powell, which with Lake Mead, serve millions of people who live in Arizona, Nevada and California.
That’s why Behery leans so heavily on Derry’s data from his main study site, in Senator Beck Basin, in the western San Juan Mountains between the towns of Silverton and Telluride.
Every winter through peak runoff since Derry took over the dust-on-snow study from his predecessor, Chris Landry, he has strapped on climbing skins and skied to the study site several times a week. Using a trusty shovel, a magnifying glass, a snow-water equivalent tube and a thermometer, he measures snow crystals, snow temperature and how much water the snowpack contains, before he checks the sensors of his backcountry climate station for albedo levels to provide an “albedo forecast.”
Since 2019, he has sent this information to Behery to indicate what she can expect to see downstream “in the next 1, 2, 3, 5, 7, 30 days in the future,” he says.
The Center for Snow and Avalanche Studies is the only entity that monitors dust-on-snow conditions on an operational basis for the water community, researchers and stakeholders in the United States. The dust-on-snow program is a statewide effort, with 11 river basin monitoring sites from which Derry and a team of interns assess the density of dust on snow and report on local snowmelt and streamflow impacts to the corresponding watersheds.
Last year, with several major dust events, Derry’s data was especially prescient, Behery says. But this year isn’t so bad, “because we have a pretty wet situation in the Southwest. So even if we do have a lot of windstorms it probably won’t pick up as much dust in the past,” she adds.
But she’s still calling Derry, or he is calling her, daily or close to daily, and she’s using his data to help best predict peak flows. Water releases by Behery and other river managers from McPhee Reservoir on the Dolores River impact all of the normal stakeholders, plus Colorado’s boating and fishing communities. And Behery says for each type of release the hydrograph must have the “perfect shape.”
“For example, it needs higher flows (correlating to a different shape) on weekends when people are going to recreate,” she says. “The same goes for Memorial Day. And dust is always a part of the equation, because if it’s really dark and the sun is shining, we’ll have all of this runoff happening. And then we have a cool-down, and that will stop the runoff and we’ll think it has ended. But if you look at Jeff’s data, it hasn’t ended. There was just an inch of snow on top of the dust, which increased the snow’s albedo and slowed down the runoff. We’ll still have more coming, so we’ll know what to do with the boater spill. We can keep it coming. We don’t have to shut it off.”
But managing water like Behery does “is real-time fuzzy science,” she adds. “It’s what I call riding the dragon, because you’re just trying to stay on it. There are lots of decisions and lots of Monday morning quarterbacks.”
Behery’s water updates go out to 450 people,“internal, external, public, stakeholder and private,” she says. She coordinates with Derry to make the best-informed decisions. “Our goal is to make sure everyone is getting their fair share of water,” she adds. And this year is no different, although the snow is deeper, the temperatures cooler, the winds calmer and there’s less dust.
A dust scientist’s plea to Colorado senators
In fact, of the six Colorado dust events so far this season, the only major one occurred April 3.
Most of that event bypassed the Senator Beck study site and continued north, toward Aspen. There, at Grand Mesa and at Beaver Creek, people reported seeing a “gritty, dark layer” that even after new snow had covered it, skiers’ tracks resurfaced. But in Derry’s dust-on-snow update for April 6, he wrote, “I guess we all knew [a significant event] would happen eventually.”
The event turned out to be widespread and nasty in terms of the amount of dust deposited on a relatively pristine snowpack that had essentially reached maximum accumulation, he reported. “It just takes one bad dust event to change things — this one will change the characteristics of snowmelt and runoff for the duration of spring dramatically.” The dust put places that received it in the “average” category.
But in the San Juan basin, which Behery manages, even given this event, things are looking a little better than normal.
“In a year like this where we have a good snowpack, the dust cycle continues but we can have a reset,” she says. “Still, we need subsequent years of snowpack and runoff that are either average or above average to make a lasting impact. People think one year can do it, but we’ve had 20 years of drought with a few little good years in between.”
Derry told The Sun that he’s part of a “small, loose group” of scientists, landowners, land managers and others working to build a coalition that can define the problem with and potential solutions for dust and then encourage those who own the lands dust originates on — including the BLM and Bureau of Indian Affairs — to take action through policy and support. His motivation for helping start the coalition “is when I give talks to groups — doesn’t matter who — and explain what I do, always, the first question I get is, ‘We know what the problem is, why don’t we fix it?’ And I am like, ‘Yeah, why don’t we?’ so this is my attempt.”
At the end of his April 6 update, he also addressed Sens. John Hickenlooper and Michael Bennet, who were traveling through Colorado with senators from other Colorado River Basin states to see and discuss river issues and solutions. “It would be valuable if the group were to swing through the Southern Colorado Plateau and discuss the imperative need to restore soil health for the benefit of the land itself, the quality of life and livelihood of the people who live in the region, and of course to minimize dust transport to the Colorado snowpack,” Derry wrote.
It would seem impossible to forget or minimize the Cultural Revolution in China, which lasted from 1966 to 1976, resulted in an estimated 1.6 million to two million deaths and scarred a generation and its descendants. The movement, which under Mao Zedong’s leadership sought to purge Chinese society of all remaining non-Communist elements, upended nearly every hallowed institution and custom. Teachers and schools long held in esteem were denounced. Books were burned and banned, museums ransacked, private art collections destroyed. Intellectuals were tortured.
But in China, a country where information is often suppressed and history is constantly rewritten — witness recent government censorship of Covid research and the obscuring of Hong Kong’s British colonial past in new school textbooks — the memory of the Cultural Revolution risks being forgotten, sanitized and abused, to the detriment of the nation’s future.
The Chinese government has never been particularly eager to preserve the memory of that sordid decade. When I spent six weeks traveling in China in 1994 — a slightly more open time in the country — I encountered few public acknowledgments of the Cultural Revolution. Museum placards and catalogs often simply skipped a decade in their timelines or provided brief references in the passive voice along the lines of “historical events that took place.”
But in her new book, “Red Memory: The Afterlives of China’s Cultural Revolution,” the journalist Tania Branigan notes that under Xi Jinping, China’s top leader, efforts to suppress this history have intensified — with troubling implications for the political health of the country at a time when it looms larger than ever on the world stage. “When you’ve had a collective trauma, you really need a collective response,” Branigan told me recently. “I can see why the Communist Party wants to avoid the rancor and bitterness, but when you don’t have that kind of acknowledgment, you can move on — but you can’t really recover.”
The White River in Northeastern Utah emerges from the Colorado mountains into the Uinta Basin. Russel Albert Daniels
The GPS coordinates weren’t especially helpful last May as we drove across the remote Tavaputs Plateau in Utah’s Uinta Basin. Cell service was spotty in the vast expanse of land crosshatched with unpaved roads identified on the map only as “Well Road 4304735551” or “Chevron Pipeline Road.” Photographer Russel Albert Daniels and I had set off that morning from Vernal (population 10,241), in search of a 15-square-mile plot of undeveloped land purchased in 2011 by the Estonian-government-owned energy company Enefit.
On that land, the Estonians had hoped to create the first commercial-scale oil shale mining and processing facility in the United States, with a 320-acre industrial plant that would process 28 million tons of strip-mined shale and turn it into 50,000 barrels of oil every day for 30 years. Rich with traditional oil and gas reserves, the Uinta Basin also sits atop the largest oil shale reserve in the world, a 6 million-year-old geologic formation where Utah officials estimate a tantalizing 77 billion barrels of potentially recoverable oil lie just waiting to be exploited.
At a public meeting back in 2013, former Rep. Rob Bishop (R-Utah) told the Deseret News that the “exciting” Enefit project “has the potential to create significant revenue and jobs here in Utah and help with energy independence nationwide.” Cody Stewart, an energy adviser to former Governor Gary Herbert, called it “a game changer” with “the potential to make Utah a significant player on the energy map.”
The prognosis was not quite as bright in Estonia. Two years after the purchase, Estonian parliament members warned that the government risked losing $100 million on the deal because early lab tests in Germany had failed to affordably produce oil from Utah’s shale. Ingo Valgma, director of the mining department at the Tallinn University of Technology, told an Estonian journalist that the technology for producing oil in Utah was not a few years away but decades. Nonetheless, the Estonians stayed put and Utah’s elected officials sallied forth, optimistically insisting that oil shale riches were just around the corner.
As Russel and I bumped along the dirt roads of eastern Utah in search of Enefit’s land, it became painfully obvious that the Estonians had overlooked a major problem when they plunked down $42 million to acquire 30,000 acres of sagebrush in the basin: water, or the lack of it. Pulling a single barrel of oil out of shale requires between two and four barrels of water. The Uinta Basin lies within an arid, desert climate that averages about 8 inches of rain annually at the wettest of times. What little it does have comes from the critical watershed of the dying Colorado River, which more than 40 million people in the West rely on for agriculture and drinking water.
Enefit’s land sits just 40 miles from where the White River meets the Green, the largest and most important tributary of the Colorado River. To mine and process oil shale, Enefit hoped to suck as much as 11,000-acre-feet of water out of the Green River every year—about 10 million gallons a day, or enough to supply the daily needs of 90,000 households downstream in Arizona. (An acre-foot equals about 326,000 gallons or enough to cover about a football field with a foot of water.) Unfortunately, perhaps, for Enefit, “That water, more than likely, doesn’t exist,” says Brad Udall, a senior water and climate research scientist at Colorado State University’s Colorado Water Center.
Last summer, during one of the driest years of a 23-year mega drought in the West, the federal government told the seven Colorado River basin states they must come up with a plan to reduce water consumption by up to 40 percent of the river’s current volume, or enough to serve more than 6 million households for a year. This year, federal water managers plan to cut deliveries from the river by up to 25 percent. Record snowfall this winter may head off some of the worst of the cuts, but the runoff will only partially refill badly depleted Lake Powell and Lake Mead, the country’s largest reservoirs. The water crisis remains urgent, and the long-term prospects for the Colorado are grim.
The dire state of the Colorado River hasn’t stopped Utah officials from enthusiastically supporting policies to encourage Enefit’s oil shale production and all sorts of other thirsty, ill-conceived fossil fuel projects in the Uinta Basin in what some environmentalists have dubbed a “suicide pact.” These projects and priorities generally, and Enefit’s in particular, illustrate how a state, run largely by people who don’t believe in climate change, still presses ahead with carbon-belching fossil-fuel developments that, if successful, will only exacerbate the megadrought that has brought the Colorado River—and the West—to the brink of disaster.“I’ve given talks to high-level people in Utah who refuse to acknowledge the relationship between climate change and the drought and the American West.”
“The whole connection between water and climate change, and conventional energy development and climate change, is not front and center” in Utah, says Udall. “I’ve given talks to high-level people in Utah who refuse to acknowledge the relationship between climate change and the drought and the American West.”
In 1861, LDS church president Brigham Young assembled a group of missionaries in Salt Lake City and ordered them to set off for the Uinta Basin to create new Mormon settlements in the region—lest the “Gentiles” get there first. A few months later, the scouting party reported back gloomily that the basin was “one vast contiguity of waste, and measurably valueless, excepting for nomadic purposes, hunting grounds for Indians, and to hold the world together.” Young suggested to President Abraham Lincoln that he use the wasteland for a Ute tribe reservation—and that’s what happened.
About 20 years later, however, a white settler named Mike Callahan built a new cabin just over the border in Colorado next to Parachute Creek. He used pretty, local rocks for his fireplace and chimney. Legend has it that the first time he lit a fire on the hearth, the cabin burned down. The pretty rocks turned out to be flammable oil shale. Ever since, speculators have been trying to figure out how to monetize those massive shale deposits in Utah. Still, it wasn’t until the oil shocks of the 1970s that the federal government got involved.
In 1974, the Department of Interior leased two large parcels of public land in the Uinta Basin that Enefit now controls to a consortium of oil companies that became the White River Shale Company. The Carter administration created loan subsidies and other supports to encourage oil shale mining, and construction began on a coal-fired power plant to support the future industry. In 1982, the White River Shale company pledged to invest $100 million into the operation and began the construction of a new mine in the basin.
Just three years later, global oil prices collapsed, Ronald Reagan cut off federal subsidies for alternative fuel development, and the company officially abandoned the mine. But in 2005, Congress passed a bill pushed by President George W. Bush and Utah Republican senators Orrin Hatch and Robert Bennett that declared oil shale an “important domestic resource” for national security and directed the federal government to accelerate its development.”We are committed to being in the oil shale business for years and years to come.”
The US Bureau of Land Management moved to reopen the mine in 2006 and leased the 160-acre site to a company backed by an Alabama coal firm called Oil Shale Exploration to conduct research on oil shale processing. “We are committed to being in the oil shale business for years and years to come,” promised managing partner Dan Elcan at the time. The company lasted five years. In 2011, Enefit bought all the defunct company’s assets, including the White River mine lease and 30,000 acres of private land nearby where it planned to open a shale processing plant.
The Lisbon Valley mining claim rush continues: In May, Australia-based Mandrake Lithium filed 217 20-acre placer claims, totaling 4,340 acres, on Bureau of Land Management parcels in the Lisbon Valley in San Juan County, Utah.
That’s a lot of land, but is only makes up a small piece of the company’s 88,000-acre proposed Utah Lithium Project, comprised of 2,700 BLM claims and a 34,670-acre swath of Utah School Institutional and Trust Lands Administration parcels. The main block of acreage lies south of the town of La Sal, with the SITLA lands scattered about the general vicinity.
In a press release, Mandrake Resources Managing Director, James Allchurch crowed: “Mandrake has now secured, at a very little cost, over 80,000 acres prospective for lithium brines in the Paradox Basin, Utah, confirming the acquisition of a potentially world-class lithium project.” It appears that they’ll be using old oil and gas wells and perhaps drilling new wells to extract the lithium.
The Lisbon Valley, which lies east of Canyonlands National Park between Moab and Monticello, has long been targeted by mining and oil and gas drilling companies. It was where Charlie Steen established his Mi Vida uranium mine, making him a millionaire, sparking a regional prospecting frenzy and turning Moab into a boomtown, if only for a little while. It’s drawing uranium and copper mining once again, along with various companies staking claims for lithium mining. Also holding large blocks of claims in the Lisbon Valley are Boxscore Brands and MGX Minerals Petrolithium.
Mandrake’s project, were it ever come to fruition, would be the largest in the Lisbon Valley by far, acreage wise. But they still have a long ways to go before anything actually happens. They may get a bit of help from a proposed land swap between SITLA and the U.S. Interior Department aimed at making Bears Ears National Monument whole. SITLA will hand over 130,000 acres of its lands within Bears Ears National Monument, in addition to 30,000 acres of state lands elsewhere in Utah, to the federal government. In exchange, the BLM will give SITLA 163,000 acres from around Utah, including 52,000 acres in San Juan County, a good chunk of it in the Lisbon Valley.
Regulations on state land are likely to be even looser than those on federal land. So the land swap should benefit Mandrake and other companies looking to mine the Lisbon Valley. In other mining claim news …
Freeport-McMoran Exploration Corp. files 89 20.66-acre lode claims in southwestern New Mexico totaling 1,838 acres. The claims are in a small mountain range just south of I-10 and west of Cotton City right along the Arizona line. Freeport-McMoran is a huge mining company that typically focuses on copper and molybdenum.
Majuba Mining files 19 20-acre claims near Lordsburg, New Mexico, (and just north of the aforementioned Freeport-McMoran claims) in a dry lake bed. They appear to be expanding their holdings here, though it’s not clear what they intend to mine (though the alkali flats could point to lithium). I can’t find much on Majuba Mining except that they seem to have mining claims in Nevada and were in a lawsuit a few years back over paying maintenance fees on claims.
Western Cobalt LLC, with offices in Sandy, Utah, files 127 20.66-acre lode claims in Tooele County, Utah, between Utah Lake and Dugway totaling 2,624 acres. This is outside our usual geographic focus, but we noticed it for the large size of the property as well as the fact that it’s made by a company with “cobalt” in its name. Which leads us to think maybe they’re planning on mining cobalt, which is used in electric vehicle and grid-scale batteries. This is notable because the nation’s only large-scale cobalt mine recently opened in Idaho — and then promptly shut down (before producing anything) due to decreasing prices of the metal. These projects and more can be found on the Land Desk Mining Monitor Map, updated regularly.
Recognizing its strategic importance, economic potential, and its environmental consequences, President Gabriel Boric of Chile, the world’s second largest producer of the metal, announced plans in late April to increase state participation in the country’s lithium industry.
“The main aim of this policy,” said Pedro Glatz, who was a senior advisor to the Chilean Ministry of the Environment until two months ago and was not involved in crafting the policy, “is to provide more wealth, well-being, and welfare to the Chilean people.”
But Indigenous communities and environmental defenders who live near Chile’s lithium resources question whether this wealth-building and the growth of the global electric car industry should come at the expense of their water, homes, and a critical ecosystem.
Over half of the world’s known lithium deposits are located where Chile, Bolivia, and Argentina border one another. Situated within the Andes, parts of the area are drier than anywhere in the world outside of Antarctica. The region is often referred to as the Lithium Triangle because of its mineral-rich salt flats, which form when large pools or shallow lakes of water accumulate on plateaus or between mountain ridges and evaporate. Lithium revenue accounted for nearly 2 percent of Chile’s annual gross domestic product last year.
In announcing his intention to grow the government’s oversight of the lithium industry, Boric delivered on a campaign promise he made in 2021. Under the new framework, the state will capture more revenue by mandating that private companies partner with public agencies for all future mining contracts. Subject to congressional approval, Boric also hopes to create a publicly owned national lithium company.
Notably, the policy also takes a more ambitious approach to environmental standards across the lifecycle of the industry. The government will create a public research institute to develop new refining technologies, and institute lithium waste and battery recycling.
But critics question whether the plan will do enough to protect the Lithium Triangle from the high costs of extraction.
In response to Boric’s announcement, a coalition of Indigenous peoples, environmental activists, and researchers called the Plurinational Observatory of Andean Salt Flats, or OPSAL, released a statement titled “Salt flats are not mines, salt flats are wetlands.”
OPSAL is worried that lithium extracted from Chile and other South American countries will be primarily used for private electric vehicles in the European Union, the United States, and China, which they call “a false solution to climate change that benefits the most polluting economies of the planet.” They argue that such a solution wouldn’t meet the mobility needs of the majority of the world’s inhabitants, and that attempting to replace all internal combustion engine cars with electric vehicles would create unnecessary sacrifice zones along lithium mining corridors.
Earlier this year, a report from the Climate and Community Project found that expanding public transportation infrastructure and reducing car battery sizes could reduce lithium demand by up to 90 percent in the U.S., suggesting that it’s possible to address the climate crisis while simultaneously protecting Indigenous rights and biodiversity.
Glatz, the former environmental ministry adviser, said that the Chilean government’s active participation in the lithium industry could give it more leverage in international discussions about lithium demand. “If countries want to use these resources, we could be negotiating concessions, both in terms of climate debt, but also in the ways lithium is being used,” he told Grist. “It might be a better use of that lithium to provide batteries for public transportation in the global south, rather than to support an unsustainable lifestyle in the global north, and it’s a shame that these ideas are not in the discussion today.”
OPSAL welcomes increased state participation and hopes that the government will center the Andean salt flats and wetlands in its management of the lithium industry. Boric’s lithium strategy explicitly acknowledges territorial and environmental concerns, and includes a plan to conserve 30 percent of the salt flat region. But OPSAL wants the government to go further by adopting an international convention that guarantees Indigenous people’s right to free, prior, and informed consent — a bedrock of Indigenous rights. Such a guarantee would respect Indigenous communities’ “right to say no to a project that threatens their way of life and the ecosystems where they live,” the coalition said in its statement.
Glatz admits that mining lithium in a sustainable way is perhaps the most challenging part of Boric’s strategy. “I don’t think the Chilean state, or anybody for that matter, knows how to do this in a good way. It is perhaps one of the questions of the 21st century,” he told Grist. “How do we deal with the demand for specific types of resources that are needed for the energy transition, and at the same time not destroy ecosystems or nations that have developed over centuries?”
The Valley of Mars in the Atacama Desert, with the Andes in the distance.Credit…By Anthony Cotsifas
By Maggie Shipstead
Photographs and Video by Anthony Cotsifas
May 10, 2023
WHEN I RETURNED my rental car at the airport in Calama, I’d driven 1,499 miles through the Atacama Desert, drawing a zigzag through Chile’s far north. The driest place on earth — vying with parts of Antarctica — the Atacama covers an area of 40,000 to 49,000 square miles, depending on how inclusive your definition is, and stretches along 700 to 1,000 miles of Pacific coastline. It’s a place defined by absence, or at least extreme sparseness. Of water, of life. Whatever is determined enough to exist there — people, plants, animals, even microbes — must be hardy, resilient and well adapted. From the road, I’d seen life hanging on. I’d ventured into the desert and also seen what dryness preserves (bones, ruins) and what it exposes (mineral riches, the stars).
In the Calama departures hall, a dog slept stretched out on a bench while a group of men sat on their luggage rather than disturb him. Almost everyone lined up at check-in was a man. Chuquicamata, the world’s largest open-pit copper mine, a hole big enough to swallow Central Park, is nine miles north of the city. Miners flow in and out of the area, some working a week on, a week off. “The whole landscape seems to concentrate, giving a feeling of suffocation across the plain,” writes Che Guevara in “The Motorcycle Diaries” (1993), his posthumously published account of traveling through South America in the early 1950s. Underground mining at Chuquicamata began in 2019, chasing deposits depleted by more than a century of extraction. From the highway, I’d passed terraced slag mountains, visible through a dusty haze, a full-scale topography of used-up earth. There used to be a company town just outside the pit with over 20,000 residents but, in the aughts, mainly to comply with pollution regulations, the state-run firm that operates the mine built 3,000 houses in Calama and relocated everyone. I’d driven through one of these neighborhoods. The streets were almost eerily quiet, a dream of suburban tidiness dropped into a landscape of stark and immaculate harshness.
There is a long history of habitation and abandonment in the Atacama, of boomtowns and ghost towns. In places so barren that human survival seemed preposterous, I drove past rambling derelict buildings, remnants of the once-thriving 19th-century nitrate mining industry. The desert highways had a feeling of hauntedness, of something missing or hidden. Not far from Calama, I’d driven past a memorial to 26 people murdered in 1973 by General Augusto Pinochet’s killing squad known as the Caravan of Death, their bodies buried in a mass grave, then dug up and dispersed. Crushed bone fragments were discovered on the site in 1990 by family members who’d combed the desert for years. I’d passed a field of revolving turbines and a lonely black sea of solar panels. Wind and sun are abundant in the Atacama; water is noteworthy.
Look between your shoes while standing here and you will see parched sand and rock. Look at the same land from an airplane and distance reveals the ghost of water, the branching etchings and furrows of desiccated riverbeds and arroyos. The ginkgo leaf shapes of alluvial fans spread at mountains’ feet. So arid and scoured by UV radiation are the driest regions of the Atacama that NASA engineers and astrobiologists use parts of its near rainless interior, known as the hyperarid core, as analogues for Mars, places to test rovers and instruments and to study its hardiest bacteria and fungi for clues as to where Martian microbial life might exist or have existed. The Atacama is a figurative window into space, a metaphor for another planet, but it’s a literal window, too: The combination of its extreme dryness, relative emptiness and areas of high elevation give the Atacama the clearest, darkest night sky anyone can reliably find on earth. For that reason, other nations have spent billions of dollars building large, advanced telescopes here, with more under construction.
Before setting out for my 10-day road trip this past January, I planned a meandering itinerary to explore the desert’s gamut, from the ocean to the mountains and through its forbidding heart. For thousands of years, people have confronted this inhospitable place and taken what they could from it. I wanted to know what happens when human beings are determined to make something out of nothingness.