My grandparents moved south of Gillette, Wyoming, in 1918, determined to build a life together raising cattle on the vast grasslands of the Powder River Basin. They had one thing in mind when choosing their homestead: reliable sources of fresh water. They built a modest single-room home within a stone’s throw of a small stream that would provide year-round fresh water for their livestock and their growing family.
If they were alive today, my grandparents would hardly recognize the homestead they built. The stream that once supported a stand of willow trees and a variety of wildlife is nothing more than mud for most of the year. My wife and I now live on the 8,500-acre ranch, driving to Gillette every week to buy bottled drinking water and piping in water from 40,000 feet away for the 200 or so cattle we still manage to raise here.
Sure, the weather has changed a bit. Summer heat spells are longer and more intense. We can no longer grow tomatoes in the front garden like my family did when I was a kid. But the biggest difference between now and 1918? The Peabody Antelope Creek Mine, ten miles downstream from our ranch. It cuts deeper into the earth each year, taking the bottom out of the aquifer our home relies on.
Mining and burning coal is a water-intensive process from beginning to end. Mined coal must be washed with water and chemicals before it’s sent to power plants. In the plant, water creates the steam that spins the energy-producing turbines. The U.S. Department of Energy estimates that up to 260 million gallons of water per day is used for mining coal in the United States. That’s nearly enough water to keep the entire city of Denver running during summer months.
Fresh water is becoming a scarce resource in the West, and scientists fear the problem could get worse in the coming years. Recent droughts and population growth have led to bitter fights between states over water rights. In Wyoming, we’re planning to spend hundreds of millions of dollars on new reservoirs and water management projects to ensure that ranchers and farmers have access to the water they need to stay in business.
Ranching has been part of the culture of the West for centuries, providing an honest living for millions of families from Montana to Texas. The last thing independent ranchers need is to lose the water they’ve relied on for decades. Droughts in recent years have squeezed ranchers off prime grazing habitat on federal land, and there are signs it could get worse in the coming years. A 2014 review by the U.S. Government Accountability Office predicted water shortages in both Montana and Wyoming in the next decade.
With President Trump’s talk of sticking up for rural America, you’d think he would recognize the plight of families who are being squeezed on all sides. But judging from his first month in office, it’s clear that corporate profits, not the long-term outlook for independent farmers and ranchers, are the first priority of this White House.
Take the expectation that the Trump administration will order opening up more federal lands to coal mining, for example. The Department of the Interior announced a temporary hold on new coal leases last year so the public could weigh in on an outdated, rigged system that gave away public lands to coal executives for pennies on the dollar, shortchanging local communities of needed royalty revenues. Ryan Zinke, Trump’s newly approved pick for Secretary of the Interior, is expected to issue a secretarial order that essentially kills that review process and calls for open season on our federal lands once again.
America already has more coal than it knows what to do with. There is a 20-year supply of coal under existing federal leases and a 175 million-ton stockpile of already mined coal in the United States. The price of coal is cheaper than it’s ever been as local consumers turn away from dirty fossil fuels and toward clean, cheap, renewable wind and solar projects. Proposals to export more coal have fizzled out as communities in Asia recognize the public health crisis caused by rampant coal burning. What’s the hurry in digging up even more of our precious grassland, aside from coal companies’ profit margins?
The review of coal leasing on federal lands isn’t going to save our ranch, which has been in the Turner family for nearly a century. The aquifer and natural springs that drew my grandfather to this beautiful plot of land were long ago sacrificed so coal executives could make a buck. No amount of promises of reclamation and restoration on the part of the coal company are going to bring them back, at least in my lifetime.
But Trump and Zinke have an opportunity to do the right thing and continue the Department of the Interior’s review process on federal coal leasing, which seeks to make it more fair, competitive, and aware of its impacts on local communities. We can’t continue to sacrifice a resource that our children will need—fresh water—in pursuit of a resource like coal that has no market and no future.
L.J. Turner is a third-generation cattle rancher who lives in the heart of the Powder River Basin, which supplies 40 percent of the United States’ coal.