Mine could evacuate Ely’s water supply
February 24, 2010 - 12:00 am
Two key ingredients gave Ely its start in the late 1860s: the fresh water bubbling from Murry Springs and the precious metals sewn through surrounding hills.
Not much has changed since then.
Today, Ely’s largest private employer is the Robinson open-pit copper mine, and the city’s primary source of water is Murry Springs.
But the two elemental reasons for Ely’s existence now stand in direct conflict, and one might not survive without the destruction of the other.
To keep the mine going for a few more years, Robinson officials say they need to "dewater" an area of saturated rock so they can expand their pit. But pumping millions of gallons of water from the ground could dry up Murry Springs, leaving the city 250 miles north of Las Vegas to find water elsewhere.
"You have the two primary reasons for why Ely is here, and they are coming to a head over which one to give up to keep the other," said Sean Pitts, who works as historian for the state-run East Ely Railroad Museum. "I hope someone’s got it figured out."
City officials made their choice a year ago, when they entered into an agreement that will allow the mine expansion to go forward in exchange for water system improvements paid for by Robinson and its Canadian-based owner, Quadra Mining Ltd.
"We set up a lot of safety nets for the city," said Ely Mayor Jon Hickman. "Do we have a water problem? Yeah, we have a water problem, but the mine is picking up the tab for it.
"We cut a good deal."
Besides, Hickman added, it’s not like the city had much of a choice. Officials were told that unless Robinson was allowed to expand its pit, the mine could be forced to shut down altogether in as little as six months.
That would mean the loss of "500 good-paying jobs" in an area with about 5,000 residents, Hickman said. "It could have been devastating to our economy."
Expanding the pit is expected to buy the mine another seven years of life.
"It really came down to keeping the mine open," the mayor said. "We could have said, ‘We’re keeping our water and you can close the mine,’ but I guarantee we would have been run out of town if we’d done that."
At least one Ely resident isn’t happy about the risk the city is taking. Ed Thomas said he thinks City Council members caved to pressure from the mine, and in the process they signed away the future of Ely.
"I’m not anti-mining by any means, but I’m not willing to give up my water and the water of 3,500 people," he said.
State water regulators will hold a hearing in Ely this morning to review the mine’s current applications to pump groundwater near the springs.
The hearing is scheduled for two days, but it might not last that long.
For one thing, the only water-rights holder on Murry Springs is the city, and it withdrew any objections it had once it entered into its deal with the mine.
It’s a unique situation, according to Nevada’s chief water regulator.
"Seldom do I have someone coming to me saying, ‘You’re going to impact my water right but that’s OK,’ " said acting State Engineer Jason King.
If the city objected to the mine’s plans, "we would have a different dynamic there," King said. "We would be talking to the mine about curtailing (its groundwater pumping), but that’s not the issue."
In fact, everyone seems to be in agreement about the probable effects. King said the mine’s plans will almost certainly reduce the flow of water in Murry Springs, if not stop it altogether.
Already, the flow has dropped by about one-third, and King said there is "no dispute" about the cause. It coincided with previously approved dewatering work at the mine five miles west of Ely.
Officials with the Robinson Mine and its parent company in Vancouver, B.C., did not respond to requests for comment.
Another reason today’s hearing might wrap up early: King is only slated to hear two official protests, one from Thomas and another from fellow Ely resident Ralph Gubler.
Long-time Ely businessman Keith Carson initially objected to the mine’s water applications, but he recently withdrew his protest.
Carson is the founder of the Murry Springs Bottling Co., a 12-year-old enterprise that sold bottled water across Nevada and four other western states under the brand name Elyon. He built his gravity-fed bottling plant on land he leased from the city about 120 feet from Murry Springs.
Last month, Carson agreed to sell the company to Robinson Mine.
"Our little bottling operation was standing in the way of the mine," he said. "It was either the mine or us."
Carson said the deal with Robinson came with a confidentiality agreement that keeps him from discussing the particulars. Basically, though, the mining company "bought the assets" of the bottling operation, and in return Carson agreed to drop his protest with the state and stop taking water from the springs, he said.
If anyone can appreciate the difficult decision the Ely City Council was facing it’s Carson, who has lived in the community for 41 years and seen firsthand what happens during mining booms and busts.
"What do you want to do, eat or … have water?" he said. "The mine is what keeps a lot of our doors open."
City Engineer Dean Day doesn’t get paid to think about such things. His job is to keep water flowing to Ely residents. And when he first heard that the mine might be allowed to drain Murry Springs, Day said he could sum up his reaction in three words: "scared to death."
Even with the contract between the mine and the city, he said the idea still makes him nervous, though he expects to be able to relax a bit once Robinson finishes the agreed-upon improvements to Ely’s water system.
Day said the mine has already drilled two new production wells for the city, but they have yet to be equipped or connected to the municipal distribution system. The plan is to have them up and running by May 1, he said.
The mine also is in the process of rehabilitating one of Ely’s existing groundwater wells, which the city sometimes uses in the summertime when it can’t meet peak demand with what comes out of Murry Springs.
"There’s been years when we’ve never turned a well on," Day said.
Once all the infrastructure work is done, the only thing the city will be on the hook for is increased pumping costs should the mine go bankrupt or otherwise skip out on its responsibilities, Day said.
In that way, the deal with Robinson could prove beneficial to the city.
Day said some predict the spring will recover someday, maybe after the mine closes for good. If that happens, Ely will wind up with what amounts to a back-up water supply and a means to deliver it, all paid for by Robinson.
Carson certainly hopes it all works out, because he has no plans to sell his other business interests and leave Ely behind.
"It’s the last frontier, and I love this place," he said. "They’ll bury me here."
Contact reporter Henry Brean at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-383-0350.