Usually Mines Have Too Little Water; Barrick Has Too Much
SYDNEY— Garry Pearson recalls precisely when a vast lake appeared on the doorstep of one of Barrick Gold Corp.’s ABX.T -1.56% biggest mines in Australia. It was two years ago, just as gold prices hit a high-water mark.
The area’s name—Lake Cowal—hinted there was water nearby. But for most of the decade that Barrick has been exploring for gold or mining in this remote part of New South Wales state, the land was so dry that local farmers used it to graze sheep and other livestock.
Since the lake reappeared, Barrick has faced a raft of water-driven challenges ranging from a scramble to find a floating drill rig to an influx of venomous snakes.
Mr. Pearson, an environment manager whose job at Barrick includes keeping noise levels within acceptable limits, no longer drives to work but jumps into a power boat or kayak. When he reaches the monitoring station, he has to climb atop a three-meter metal chair lapped by the lakewater.
A major problem for Australian mining companies has traditionally been a lack of water. Many of the biggest deposits of minerals like iron ore, coal and gold routinely shipped to industrializing Asian countries are located in remote desert regions—far from a stable water supply or infrastructure like rail and ports.
That has added to the cost of developing mines, and led several of the larger companies like BHP Billiton Ltd. BHP.AU -0.69% to suspend some operations after commodity prices tumbled recently.
When Barrick began exploring for gold at Cowal after acquiring the land in 2001, its problem too was finding enough water to support the mine. It spent millions of dollars on pipes and dams to bring in and store water from far away.
Lake Cowal is one of Australia’s largest ephemeral lakes, meaning it fills up only rarely and quickly dries out. For much of the past century, eucalyptus trees studded an arid landscape and local farmers fenced off much of the land.
“It used to be so dry, the landowners were growing crops on it,” said Mr. Pearson. “Now we’ve got to get a boat and worry about the weather. There’s a high number of tiger snakes, so we have to dodge them as well.”
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