East of Tucson in high desert 175 miles by road is the copper mine in Morenci, Arizona. This fifty-thousand-acre beast is North America’s largest. Water from Gila River passes through here, then there is the San Francisco River, and Eagle Creek too. The copper mine is by tonnage the world’s third largest. The electrification of our transportation system is going to lean hard on this source of copper.
Clifton is near the Morenci mine, then there is Three Way and Rattlesnake Canyon too. Between Willow Creek and Cold Creek, you’ll find some folks growing hay, not much, but there’s some. The pair of creeks are tributaries to the San Francisco River, the two are intermittent streams and they flow near and next to never. Pioneers gave them names all in the good hope of praying for rain.
Work at the mine pays $25.00 an hour, maybe up to $31.00. That’s a good wage for rural Arizona. If you are an outdoorsman there is plenty to do here. Drive out to Gila Box Canyon for fishing, hunting and whiskey drinking. If you are inclined to continue east to the New Mexico border, you’ll have to drive 93 miles on mountain road until you find Silver City where something like 9000 citizens celebrate an off the beaten path life.
If you go west of Clifton instead of east, you’ll find Safford, Arizona, a town of about the same size as Silver City. The agricultural community is as frisky as a cowboys’ fingers tugging on the latches of a bustle fit snug on a girl that this rodeo roping expert just has to have. There is free love, there is paid love, and then there is love you cannot have at any price. Any unrequited lover knows that hard truth and heartbreak.
Now the mine in Morenci is properly named Freeport-McMoRan Copper & Gold. Nearby Clifton claims 3900 people have come here to live out their hopes and dreams. Like most lunch bucket towns, where men and women work more by physical labor than by toiling at a desk there is a problem with controlled substances. We know booze is popular, opioids come next then methamphetamines.
Trying to make a good life in Clifton is not impossible, but an unmarried buck working at the mine will tend to run their four-wheel drive hard and do as he damn well please. Smuggled drugs cross the Mexican border are disbursed by gangs working in collusion with the Sinaloa crime syndicate─ this is a brutal and murderous gang. So called drug mules cross on foot in the dark of night with pieces of carpet tied to their feet so that their tracks can’t be traced back to their shoes. Most are captured but not before their contraband has been dumped for pickup by couriers working on the American side.
Churches are plentiful and if a man can find a wife and then start a family, he’s on the road to a better fate. Men that keep to themselves are more at risk. Without the salutary influence of a woman in their lives a feral male tends to go find mischief and temptation at the local taverns.
There is a Dollar Store, Clifton Bakery and the Lone Eagle Gun Works in town. In the case of guns, here their purpose is for hunting, sometimes shooting, but this ain’t Tombstone and Wyatt is dead and gone but the deer and elk remain. Filling out your meat locker is found at the end of a barrel. What I mean to say is that Greenlee County is purpose built for sportsmen and long guns.
County courthouse is here along with the city library. Then there is the Hard Hat Bar and Grill, The Miner’s Diner and Bar, and Clifton Hotel and Bar. As best I can tell you cannot find saloons or brew pubs anywhere nearby. Clifton is not putting on no fancy airs, you come here you’ll know you’ve hit plain and simple with no excuses.
What is here in my view is a vital piece of the whole project we refer to as Arizona. The Gila River and her tributaries converge then continue clear across the state until the river meets up with the Colorado River in Yuma. The Morenci Mine has a 50-year lease agreement with the San Carlos Apache Tribe pursuant to the San Carlos Apache Tribe Water Rights Settlement Act of 1992, as amended in 1997, “to lease up to 14,000 acre-feet per annum of its allocation of Central Arizona Project water by means of an exchange at the Black River.” In addition to the surface water, they pump Gila River basin groundwater too. Come January 2022 the Colorado River water allocations are going to be cut due to the ongoing drought. Bureau of Reclamation officials will have to cut water off to a variety of farms and ranches across the entire state, but the strategic importance of keeping Morenci Mine operating is on a list of highest priority water users.
Life for citizens in Clifton could not be more different than the lives people shape for themselves in Scottsdale. Both Arizonan’s dodge the occasional rattlesnake, both know it gets hot and water is scarce, but from there not much is the same. Total population of Greenlee County isn’t even 10,000 where if you live in Scottdale you share this one town with a quarter of a million people. But you just hold your horses because Greenlee County’s mean income is $63,497 compared to Scottsdale’s $47,290. Copper mining has been good to folk making their lives here.
Geronimo was born in Clifton. I’d bet he wasn’t pulling down some great big fat salary back in his day and age. Best as I can tell unless you are working at the Morenci mine you are likely to be living hand to mouth, life is likely touch and go, you might wish to reconsider and put an application in at the mine for steady wages and half a chance.
Heading north from Clifton out Highway 191 is devil of a twister with two lanes and a blacktop. You’ll go a good long slog north toward Apache County while gaining elevation until the high desert gives way to forest and woodland. Ponderosa pine dominates, next most is Douglas fir, then alligator juniper and then best of all the delectable two-needle pinion pine. I’d reckon Clifton isn’t a cup of tea in paradise for everyone, where the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest is a sight that steals the heart of near every last dang one of us. This is a mashup of ecosystems, partly desert partly forest, then it’s all thick with the plausible—- if you can’t imagine wanting to live here, you can’t imagine wanting to be alive anywhere. Coyotes could care less where I’d reckon the non-coyote eye of the beholder would see into the glory that I am trying to tell you to drive out to see for yourself.
Returning to the banks of the Gila River there is something vital to explain, a piece of what Arizona claims to be is all tangled up in this fated first place where the river enters the state. One colossal fact is I lived on the Verde River, ultimately a tributary that feeds the Gila. Next most important is that the Gila River defines Arizona’s watersheds, this is her bank account, this is without any fancy engineering a primary source of the state’s water inventory.
Clifton is nearest to where this waterway begins its journey. The river cuts like a jagged lightning bolt east to west, from New Mexico to California, where all along the river has grown up a thousand and another thousand more interests that use what allotment they have been able to secure.
Lucid Motors the new electric car company manufactures near Casa Grande, then there is the Morenci copper mine, both fundamental building blocks to our world’s future energy system.
I would add one more advanced technology, a disruptive technology, and that would be the development of laboratory meat. What we know so far is that it is real, that researchers are racing full steam ahead, in fact a San Francisco startup has won approval to sell sushi grade laboratory grown salmon beginning early next year. There are many intricacies involved in the development of lab meat but there is every reason to believe it can be scaled and provide a commercially viable product to consumers.
All along the Gila River farms and ranches are going to be forced out of business, water allotments and groundwater will dry up. Where there is opportunity, this is in my mind a near perfect idea, is to build out facilities that will produce laboratory meat. It uses 95% less water than conventional meat producers use. Laboratory meat uses a fraction of the land too. There are no pesticides, no antibiotics, and no animals to face slaughter. Laboratory grown meat does use electricity and with plenty of sunshine solar would pencil out as competitors worked to bring down costs. Like anything that is living lab meat uses grains grown on farms and happens to convert the grain to meat at a much higher efficiency than cattle, pigs or chickens. Researchers are still working to artificially synthesize various pieces of the process, that’s a longer conversation, and they are not tampering with the genetics of the various meats they are growing. What this emerging industry is trying to do is grow the same tissue cells all of us have been eating at the dinner table since the beginning of time. In 2010 the electric car was regarded as a long shot, that it had limited appeal, and in 2021 it is all the rage. Laboratory meat is in the same spot, but I’m betting it can scale and play a role in our world’s race to fix the climate emergency we find ourselves being overwhelmed by.
Our climate emergency continues to worsen. This week British Columbia was hit with record floods. Climate events touch us all. Millions of us on the west coast have lived for months in smoke choked air. Heatwaves have been relentless. Still, we can see the outline of the new technologies that the world is going to use to fight back. Renewable energy, battery storage, non-carbon-based aviation fuel, residential heat pumps, non-carbon-based manufacturing of concrete and steel, regenerative farming, laser leveled row crops and digitized drip irrigation. The list is long, and hope is too. Doom, doom, and more doom won’t get the job done, and proponents of using more coal, natural gas, oil and nuclear power count on people being discouraged, people just throwing in the towel, people giving up.
My advice to you─ support the change you can believe in, face each obstacle with good cheer, buy an electric car, trick out your outdoor lighting with LED’s, vote for leadership that supports the deployment of a new energy system for a new century. We can do this