In 2003, Carol LeResche and her husband, Bob, packed up their Alaska home and moved to Sheridan, Wyoming. She was born there. And, in 1996, they had bought a ranch on Clear Creek, a few miles downstream from the little town of Clearmont, forty miles east of Sheridan. The place grows alfalfa and pastures angus cows and calves. It also has the most essential asset for growing crops in this coal-bed underlain region of the Powder River Basin: the creek’s pure waters, originating in snowfall in the Big Horn Mountains to the west.
Carol’s connection to the area, love of the land and joy in growing food are apparent in how she lights up when she speaks about her vegetables. “I moved back to Wyoming because I wanted to have a garden. I wanted to grow heirloom vegetables. That was one of the reasons – along with wanting to spend time with my 19 cousins — I came back here.”
Since returning to Wyoming, Carol has grown food for family and friends, for the Sheridan farmers’ markets, for a community supported agriculture operation (CSA) that at its peak served three cities and 79 separate families, and to a historic dude ranch. She’s seen the way local food works in Sheridan. “Bob and I went to the farmers market in 2003, and we realized how hungry people were for local food,” said Carol. “The first two years, we were one of only 2-4 people selling local produce. We would sell out in five minutes.”
Carol started growing bigger gardens, and in 2005, she and her friend Mona Mitzel – another Powder River Basin Resource Council member — started their own CSA. That CSA, Clear Creek Valley Produce, served Gillette, Buffalo and Sheridan.
“I just like to garden. I like good food. It’s been an evolution for me going from growing it for myself to growing it for markets, to building a CSA.” Carol said CSAs are a lot of work but also very rewarding.
Shortly after starting the CSA, however, development of coal bed methane (CBM) threatened Carol’s operation.
“When my husband Bob and I moved here in 2003, it was right in the middle of the peak frenzy of coalbed methane development. Everybody figured they were going to get rich. In 2009, we started seeing the effects. We realized pretty soon as ‘split estate’ owners we would have little control over what happened on our land if we didn’t speak up. And, we saw the greatest threat to our most precious asset – the unpolluted water in Clear Creek and our irrigation rights.”
To extract methane (natural gas) from coal beds, producers first pump groundwater — usually millions of gallons — from coal seams to release the trapped gas. In places like the Clear Creek Valley, that groundwater is laden with salts, and if it was released into the creek, the water could become toxic to the alfalfa in the fields and especially to the vegetable seedlings nurtured in Carol’s greenhouses.
Split estate ownership happens when the surface rights to a property — i.e. the ability to build a home, to ranch, or in Carol’s case, to garden — are severed from the subsurface property rights because the original owner of fee title sold the surface and retained the subsurface, or sold surface and subsurface to different parties. Another significant source of split estate land includes the latter Homestead Acts, which retained subsurface rights for the federal government. Wyoming state law explicitly gives preference to the mineral owner and guarantees them “reasonable” access to their minerals. This creates conflict when the two surface and subsurface owners' interests compete. Often, especially in the West, the owner of the mineral rights has deeper pockets, and stronger influence in local and state government. The mineral owner's power can make it almost impossible for individual landowners to keep their land intact and productive. The mineral companies generally win out.
In this case, however, the company was not able to overpower Carol.
One day, a landman showed up at the LeResche’s home asking them to sign a surface use agreement with the methane company. Carol and Bob declined and hurried to join Powder River Basin Resource Council to defend their water and livelihood against the abuses that were extremely common in the industry.
“We thought that being part of an organization with many people working on these issues would give us a greater voice than trying to plan alone for the impact to our land. That’s why we joined Powder River. PRBRC had lots of information concerning methane development and how we could influence decisions made concerning our land and water,” Carol said.
The Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) held hearings with stakeholders and current users of Clear Creek to decide whether or not to issue a general “watershed” permit for methane developers to release “produced water” across the entire Clear Creek drainage. Powder River arranged for the LeResches and Mona Mitzel to have official seats at the table as legitimate stakeholders.
“As we were going through those hearings we fought for the principal that existing users of Clear Creek should not be disrupted by uncontrolled discharge of methane produced water,” explained Carol.
Carol used Clear Creek water for her gardens, and was convinced that uncontrolled discharge of produced water would disrupt her vegetable operation. She located United States Geological Services (USGS) records of water quality in Clear Creek, which dated back to 1959. Powder River organized a group of members along the Clear Creek valley to collect water samples on a regular schedule. Powder River paid for these samples to be analyzed for constituents common in CBM produced water. Using USGS past research and the “Clear Creek Monitoring Group’s” data, Carol showed that methane water discharged under the proposed watershed permit would severely impact her garden and harm an “existing use.” This would put the proposed extraction in violation of Wyoming law.
Interestingly enough, it was green beans that saved the day. “See, the literature shows that germinating green beans are very salt sensitive,” Carol said. “And one of my best crops was an heirloom variety of green bean. If the methane operation added more sodium to Clear Creek, those beans wouldn't grow, and my existing use would be wiped out.”
The DEQ came out and looked at Carol and Mona’s operation, and they agreed. When they found that granting the watershed permit as drafted would, in fact, harm Carol’s garden, DEQ backed off and never issued the permit. This slowed down the methane rush in the valley, and the few wells that were drilled didn’t produce. Then came the statewide CBM “bust,” and the LeResche ranch and Clear Creek seem safe from harm — at least for now.
Since this big, early scare, Carol has continued to grow food for her community, and she encourages others to take it up as well.
“What I’m doing today is growing vegetables. I am all involved in food and what it means and how it’s important in a community,” said Carol.
Carol is determined to help Sheridan prosper by way of local food. “I want to tell my story because I believe the production of food and having local food sources does a lot to bring people together in communities. I think that’s very important and that’s what I’ve tried to do with my CSA, and with the people that I sell food to. I am always encouraging people to have gardens.”
The interest in local food has grown significantly across Wyoming since Carol started her operation 15 years ago.
“Locally grown food is much more available with many more producers since I started growing and getting involved in the local food movement,” she said. “It’s amazing how interest in local food has just mushroomed. So it’s very satisfying to see that people are really taking hold of producing their own food goods, or shopping the local farmers’ markets.”