Although company executives insist they adhere to environmental laws, natural gas drilling has led to numerous toxic spills across the West. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, mining has contaminated four out of 10 streams and rivers in the West. Similarly, mining has topped the government's list of the most polluting industries for the past decade, and new mine problems continue to arise today.
Industry representatives and the Bush administration say breaking America's dependence on foreign oil makes using all available energy resources here at home a priority.
"I believe this country needs to offer domestic resources to be energy independent," said Tim Spisak, a senior official who heads the BLM's oil and gas development group. "The way to do that is to responsibly develop public resources on our lands."
Critics of Bush's energy policies said they favor business interests at a time when climate change demands a fundamental shift in the way the nation values water. They also complain that the administration doesn't grasp the West's looming water problem.
"When Lake Mead goes dry, you cut off supply to the fifth largest economy in the world," said Patricia Mulroy, general manager of the Southern Nevada Water Authority, referring to the reservoir that sits behind the Hoover Dam and controls water flow to the Southwest's cities. She points out that while some dispute the timing of Lake Mead's demise, no one says it won't happen.
"We've ignored the need to adapt," Mulroy said. "We've never looked at what the secondary impact of, say, an energy decision is."
Both the U.S. House and Senate are considering bills that would require better management of the nation's water quality and water assets. But the bills focus more on the threat of climate change than the threat of industrial development. A growing number of water professionals say even a congressional act isn't enough to clarify the government's responsibility. They want the president to appoint a new national water authority -- or even a cabinet-level water czar.
"If you are really going to deal with water, the nation needs to deal with it in a far more comprehensive manner," said Brad Udall, director of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's water assessment program at the University of Colorado. "We can't afford to play around with potentially damaging activities."
The Southern Nevada Water Authority, the state of Arizona and the Metropolitan Water District, which governs the water supply to Los Angeles and San Diego, have implored Bush's Interior to proceed with caution as it races in these last days to develop mining, gas and oil near the river.
"We have other sources of power," said Jeffrey Kightlinger, MWD's General Manager. "We don't have other sources of water."
One of those alternative sources of energy is uranium, which is essential to the production of nuclear energy. In the last six years, new uranium mining claims within five miles of the river have nearly tripled, from 395 to 1,195, according to a review of BLM records by the Environmental Working Group, a Washington-based policy organization.
Although few of those claims will actually be mined, mining has a track record of contamination that alarms water officials dependant on the river. The Metropolitan Water District points to a 16 million ton pile of radioactive waste near Moab as a warning of what can happen when mining isn't carefully controlled.
The pile sits on the banks of the Colorado at the site of a mill that once processed uranium for nuclear warheads. The plant closed in 1984, but the Grand Canyon Trust estimates 110,000 gallons of radioactive groundwater still seep into the river there each day. The U.S. Department of Energy decided in 2000 to move the pile away from the river. But the planning was so complicated and the cost so high -- estimates top $1 billion -- that the first loads of waste won't be hauled off until next year.