Lithium mining is about to go big on the Colorado River. Here’s what to know.

The process uses an astounding amount of water, which is in short supply across Utah and the arid West.

A company is ramping up to extract lithium near the Colorado River in Utah — and use a whole lot of water.

Australia-based Anson Resources says the water beneath southeastern Utah holds an abundant source of the mineral, which the nation needs as it becomes more dependent on lithium-powered batteries and moves toward a less fossil fuel-dependent future.

But opponents worry the already over-tapped Colorado River Basin has little water to spare. The extraction technology Anson plans to use has never been used at the scale proposed, and questions remain about how much water it will consume and deplete from the system.

“Water is limited on the Colorado River,” said John Weisheit, co-founder of Living Rivers, an environmental group focused on protecting the watershed. “This is so speculative I can’t stand it.”

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) The Colorado River flows next to Kane Creek Boulevard in Moab on Thursday, July 27, 2023.

Anson has eyed Utah since at least 2017, after the company reviewed records for exploratory oil wells drilled in the 1960s. It found reports of lithium-rich brine in the Paradox Formation, the remanent of ancient evaporated seas that underlies much of the red rock Colorado Plateau.

The company plans to mine the material by drilling wells up to 9,000 feet deep. It will use a material developed by a Chinese company, Sunresin, that binds to lithium suspended in the brine. It then flushes the lithium free with fresh Colorado River water, according to information Anson CEO Bruce Richardson presented to Utah lawmakers last month. Wastewater will get injected back underground.

The process will produce 13,000 tons of lithium per year in its first phase, Richardson said. That’s about enough lithium to support batteries for 1.6 million new electric vehicles, and the CEO said the material will play a critical role in bolstering the domestic supply chain of crucial minerals in the U.S.

The value of lithium has surged from $16,000 per metric ton in 2018 to $37,000 this year, according to the latest U.S. Geological Survey information.

Anson plans to employ 80-320 people in rural Utah, Richardson said, and he expects production to be in full swing by 2027.

“Overall, it’s a very good project,” Richardson told a legislative interim committee. “It provides a lot of hope for jobs.”

The company’s lithium plans appear to have bipartisan support.

“This is exciting,” said Sen. Nate Blouin, D-Salt Lake City, during last month’s hearing. “Lithium is a huge part of where we’re headed.”

Sen. Scott Sandall, R-Tremonton, called the project “fascinating” and wished the company well.

Where Anson plans to mine lithium

Starting in 2019, A1 Lithium, a Las Vegas-based subsidiary of Anson, began signing contracts with the Utah Trust Lands Administration to lease hundreds of acres near Longs Canyon for its Paradox Lithium Project.

Those documents show the company intends to harvest lithium brine both on state lands and adjoining federal lands managed by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, or BLM. Anson also indicated it would construct a processing plant on its leased state land, and either build a pipeline or truck water from BLM land.

(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)

In March 2021, A1 submitted a mineral exploration plan to BLM for two abandoned wells about 2.5 miles northwest of Dead Horse State Park and 3 miles north of Canyonlands National Park. Anson sought to unplug the drill sites and see how much lithium the area’s briny groundwater contains.

The Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance convinced BLM to withdraw approval of that plan this year, arguing the federal agency hadn’t done adequate analysis of the potential impacts on the amount of water available in the arid region.

But Anson continues to forge ahead with its lithium plans.

In January, the company announced it was expanding to the city of Green River, staking 1,251 mining claims covering more than 40 square miles. It began construction of a processing plant there last month.

Lithium extraction’s Colorado River water demands come to light

In February, Anson declared its Paradox site near Moab “suitable” for lithium extraction because of its proximity to freshwater in the Colorado River, noting its process “uses a lot of water.”

“Water from the Colorado River,” the company wrote in a news release, “will be the water source for the lithium recovery and purification process.”

Around the same time, Anson announced a deal with the Wayne County Water Conservancy District to lease 2,500 acre-feet a year over 23 years for $1, with the option to extend for another 20 years, according to a news release.

An acre-foot is about enough water to support two households in the arid West.

The water district does not have a website or post minutes and agendas to the state public notice site, and the Wayne County clerk was unable to locate the contract. Although Anson’s projects are located in Grand and Emery counties, not Wayne, the company can file change applications to use its water leases elsewhere on the Colorado or Green rivers.

In July, another Las Vegas-based subsidiary, Blackstone Minerals, filed Anson’s first application to own water rights in Utah. The appropriation would allow the company to pump 19 cubic feet per second — the equivalent of 13,755 acre-feet each year or 12 million gallons per day — for its Green River Lithium Project.

The following month, A1 Lithium filed an application for the same volume of water at the Paradox site.

Investor information from September shows the company also intends to bore a 2.6-mile brine pipeline under Dead Horse State Park, connecting wells on BLM land to property leased from the state.

(Tom Wharton | The Salt Lake Tribune) A view of the Colorado River from Dead Horse State Park also shows the area where Australian company Anson Resources plans to mine groundwater for lithium, using the river water as part of its extraction process.

The water rights applications indicate Anson will only extract lithium, but its leases and recent investor reports show the company intends to mine bromine as well, a possible alternative material for utility-scale and electric vehicle batteries.

Anson claims its groundwater rights will be non-consumptive, since it intends to reinject the water back underground after it extracts the lithium. The brine is so deep in the earth, the company argues, that it won’t conflict with other water rights or the Colorado River.

Anson says it will recycle a “targeted” 80% of its water use, according to its presentations. But Richardson also told lawmakers last month the company expects to “consume” 2,500 acre-feet each year.

Why federal land managers and environmental groups oppose lithium mining in southeastern Utah

The National Park Service, U.S. Bureau of Reclamation and BLM have filed letters of concern about Anson’s water rights requests. Environmental groups, including Living Rivers, Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, Utah Rivers Council and the Great Basin Water Network, have also filed protests.

The federal agencies and protesters point out that under the Division of Water Rights’ own policy, new appropriations around Moab and Green River are supposed to be limited to small quantities, equivalent to the water consumed by a single-family household or irrigating one acre.

(Al Hartmann | The Salt Lake Tribune) The confluence of the Green River, left, and Colorado River in Canyonlands National Park. Federal land managers and environmental groups worry about lithium mining plans that would draw water from the already over-tapped rivers and pump millions of gallons of groundwater in the watershed.

“These are the types of paper water schemes that companies are going to continue to throw at regulators,” said Kyle Roerink, executive director of Great Basin Water Network. “And what we want from regulators is accountability.”

Anson has not provided an evaluation of how much groundwater it will consume versus reinject back into the earth, opponents say. The company has also produced no evidence to show its groundwater pumping won’t impact shallower aquifers that support nearby public parks and the Colorado River itself.

What happens next?

Whether Anson’s lithium mining plans move forward in southeastern Utah depends on whether their applications to pump groundwater brine get approved.

The state engineer, who helms the Division of Water Rights, has not made a decision. The division will hold a protest hearing for the Paradox project in Moab at 2 p.m. on Jan. 17. It can also be streamed at https://waterrights.utah.gov/hearings/.

The public can submit comments and protest letters for the Green River project until Jan. 3.