A withering drought is baking much of the west, which means states like Nevada are looking for ways to carefully manage water supplies.

In northern Nevada, gargantuan gold mining operations pump enormous quantities of fresh water every day. That has caused some critics to ask whether mining for gold is the best use of a public resource that grows more precious each day.

In a conference room at the Elko Regional Airport last month, critics of the mining industry compared notes.

Bob Fulkerson of the Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada (PLAN) tells those gathered that Nevada is not just experiencing a drought.

“It’s an extreme drought, and every drop of water is going to be priceless,” he said.

He has butted heads with the mining industry many times in the past. He knows that in Elko and much of northern and rural Nevada, mining has historically enjoyed broad support. It’s ingrained in the culture and economy. It is the largest employer by far, generating thousands of jobs in communities that might otherwise shrivel.

Fulkerson, however, thinks the current drought and predictions of a dire mega-drought to come offer a unique opportunity to change public attitudes.

“That means, long term, every drop of water is going to be more precious than gold and to grow our food, and to sate our thirst, in order for there to be enough water for wildlife, we are going to have to do a much better job of planning,” he said. “As long as these gold mining corporations are in charge of the planning for the water in these pit lakes, the public is going to be screwed.”

It is no secret that Nevada’s gargantuan gold mines, which are large enough to be seen from space, pump a lot of water. Hundreds of millions of tons of earth material are removed from gigantic pits to find microscopic flecks that are eventually poured into gold bars worth billions of dollars each year.

The pits are so large, they accommodate trucks the size of houses. Because the pits are dug deeper than the water table, massive pumps are used. At one Nevada mine, they pump 68,000 gallons of water per minute, 24 hours a day.

That has led to headlines declaring that gold mines are sucking aquifers dry. A recent study by hydrologist Dr. Tom Myers adds heft to the argument.

Myers estimates the largest gold mines have pumped so much water in the last 25 years, they caused a substantial draw-down throughout the basin.

“Since 1991, according to data from the state engineer, they have pumped 3.8 million acre feet to keep the pits dry and to keep the underground mines dry,” said Myers.

To put that in perspective, it’s more than ten times what Nevada is allowed to draw each year from the Colorado River.

“It creates a draw-down cone. Draw-down cone is a change in the water table. The water table lowers. We call that a draw-down. That is a deficit,” he said.

Myers says he worries about the long-term consequences for the Humboldt River watershed and the aquifers below. If you pump that much water, it has to be drawn from somewhere.

Fulkerson says “big mining” hasn’t had to answer tough questions about it:

“It’s been, ‘Trust us.’ It’s been, ‘Don’t ask too many questions.’ It’s been, ‘We’ve got this handled, run along now,’” he said.

Dr. George Fennemore, the operations manager for the Barrick Gold Corporation’s Cortez Mine, says water is a legitimate concern, and he doesn’t question people’s motives in raising water concerns. Managing water is one of Fennemore’s top priorities each day.

He admits that Barrick’s Cortez Mine pumps an enormous amount of water, and that it had to lower the water table by 1,000 feet. He gave the I-Team a tour of the vast facilities that funnel the water back into the aquifer.

“It is just being relocated from one part of the aquifer to another part of the aquifer and what it does is preserve the water balance in the basin,” explained Fennemore.

Barrick acquires water rights from its neighbors, like ranches, and then pumps the water back to its original owners so it can be used for agriculture.

Thousands of gallons per minute do not get returned, he admits, but the law allocates water to its highest use, which is usually expressed in economic terms.

“I think this is a pretty good use of it. If you look at what the economics of a mine are, relative to the other economic use of this land and this water, the comparison is pretty staggering,” said Fennemore.

The exact amount of water used by Nevada mines is tough to track down, partly because the government does not count mine de-watering as water used for mining.