AWN in WASHINGTON D.C.: Major Land & Water Fund Excludes Groundwater

Senator Cory Gardner of Colorado led a press conference of a bipartisan slate of U.S. Senators to announce on March 4 that the Land and Water Conservation Fund, created in the mid-1960s, will receive permanent funding for the first time ever. AWN was on the scene to cover it (AWN Photo)

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While on Capitol Hill in Washington D.C., Awakening News (AWN) attended a special March 4 press conference during which this reporter pressed United States Senator Cory Gardner after he  announced that the 56-year-old Land & Water Conservation Fund (LWCF) will, for the first time, be permanently funded—with the funding level notched up to just under $1 billion per year.

But get this: Groundwater is not included.

Click directly below for a full audio recording of the press conference. AWN’S questions to the senators are around the 28-minute mark:

 

Gardner, a Republican from Colorado, did outline a number of notable aspects of the LWCF, while saying: “This is a great day for the future of public lands in Colorado and the country . . . we have secured President Trump’s support to provide full and permanent funding for the Land and Water Conservation Fund and address the maintenance backlog at our national parks. Last year we were successful in permanently reauthorizing the LWCF, the crown jewel of conservation programs, and I have been fighting ever since to make funding permanent.”

However, while a press release from the Senate Republican Communications Center noted that some of the $900 million provided to the fund—from offshore oil and gas extraction royalties—will help preserve and improve “rivers and lakes,” “water resources” and “critical drinking water supplies,” there was a detectable sense of hesitation during the press conference when this AWN reporter pointedly asked if valuable groundwater in the nation’s aquifers was included in the conservation goals of the LWCF.

AWN also asked if any royalties from the land-based mining of minerals are, or could ever become, part of the LWCF’s revenue sources—since the mining of everything from uranium, to iron ore, coal and other minerals sometimes contaminates the groundwater systems that are tapped for irrigating crops and watering livestock, for fish farms and hatcheries, for municipal public water supplies, for water bottling, etc.

Sen. Gardner, who was accompanied at the press conference by several other senators, including John Tester (D-Montana), was addressed as follows by AWN.

AWN: “Referring to Senator Tester, he mentioned the ‘ecosystem’ part of this. Partisanship aside, does this envision any mining revenues going into this along with oil and gas revenues? Because that was brought up yesterday (March 3) on the Senator floor with regards to protecting groundwater. So, in the ‘land and water conservation’ part of this, does that include aquifers and groundwater? Or is it just surface water? And would any mining revenues maybe be used?

At first, Gardner started to avoid a direct answer—until Sen. Maria Cantrell (D-Washington State) briefly intervened and replied with the word “No” on both of AWN’s questions.

GARDNER’S REPLY TO AWN: “No . . . is the answer, but, listen, for the last 10 years, the oil-and-gas offshore revenues have averaged $5.5 billion per year. The LWCF [had] been receiving something far less than that—$300 to $400 million per year [now it’s $900,000]. There is plenty of revenue. This doesn’t cost the taxpayer anything. There’s been 5 and ½ billion dollars over the course of the last 10 years—per year.”

And with that, the press conference wound up while the deeper issues of groundwater preservation continue to get no press and no comment in Congress, at least none of any magnitude.

This groundwater question was particularly relevant to the U.S. Senate press conference because onshore oil and gas drilling via fracking in places like Midland, Texas and various mining operations can and sometimes do contaminate groundwater—even while water bottlers like Nestle and beverage companies like Coca Cola, hammer the aquifers in the U.S., Canada and beyond while paying almost no royalties.

Take note that a pro-LWCF coalition’s website explains: “It was a simple idea: Use revenues from the depletion of one natural resource—offshore oil and gas—to support the conservation of another precious resource—our land and water . . . . The money is intended to protect national parks, areas around rivers and lakes, national forests, and national wildlife refuges from development, and to provide matching grants for state and local parks and recreation projects.  Over the years, LWCF has also grown and evolved to include grants to protect working forests, wildlife habitat, critical drinking water supplies and disappearing battlefields, as well as increased use of easements.” (emphasis added)

Another major drain of the aquifers are flow-thru non-recycling fish hatcheries which, in a world where fish hatchery data is hard to obtain and politicians and government agencies seem unwilling to discuss it, are estimated to use up to 2,000 gallons of groundwater per minute.

And as for Nestle, that Swiss-based company is allowed to extract 400 gallons per minute at its Evart, Michigan plant; and in Guelph, Ontario, recent estimates of the water draw at the Nestle bottling plant there came out to $3.71 per million liters. Is that a sufficient royalty for mining water?

Thus, while fracking and other processes that can adversely affect such “critical drinking water supplies” contribute very little in the way of revenue to offset aquifer drainage and contamination—certainly when compared to the offshore energy revenues that fund the LWCF—there are operations in drought-prone Arizona and southern California that require high groundwater usage in order to grow alfalfa that is shipped to Chinese and Saudi Arabian dairy operations. Yet there’s no revenue charged for the mining of groundwater, even though “water is the new oil” in the view of modern investors.

It comes down to this: While the LWCF has many positive points, why is it that groundwater is not protected with a similar formula? If OFFSHORE oil and gas revenues can be harnessed to fund the LWCF, why aren’t ONSHORE revenues from fracking and from groundwater extraction used for groundwater and surface water protection and preservation, and for retooling fish hatcheries with recycling systems? [Editor’s note: See other AWN articles about AWN Associate Editor John Devine’s early-1990’s development of Guelph University technology to run a fish hatchery with a 90% reduction in groundwater usage for raising fish].

The MISSOULIAN newspaper editorial board wrote, in part: “Montana, in particular, has made great use of the LWCF. Consider that, according to the Montana Wildlife Federation’s calculation, nearly 70 percent of the fishing access sites and more than 800 recreational sites in the state were secured thanks to the LWCF.” (Editorial, “A Lasting Solution For LWCF,” The Missoulian, 1/22/2017)

That Montana newspaper’s view that “fishing access sites” are enhanced by the LWCF is all good and well. But notice the paper’s omission of concern about declining bait-fish populations and the need to correct the problem with groundwater-saving technology that could raise the bait-fish needed to re-balance the ecosystems that Sen. Tester referred to in his remarks at the press conference.

More LWCF Background

Created by Congress in 1964, the Land & Water Conservation Fund, according to the LWCF Coalition, a private advocacy group, is designed to address various conservation goals and is the result of “a bipartisan commitment to safeguard natural areas, water resources and our cultural heritage, and to provide recreation opportunities to all Americans. National parks like Rocky Mountain, the Grand Canyon, and the Great Smoky Mountains, as well as national wildlife refuges, national forests, rivers and lakes (emphasis added), community parks, trails, and ball fields in every one of our 50 states were set aside for Americans to enjoy thanks to federal funds from LWCF,” as the Coalition’s website explains.

The oil and gas extraction royalties for funding the LWCF are essentially drilling taxes levied on energy companies for extracting oil and gas on the Outer Continental Shelf. This allows the U.S. federal government to say that, technically, no tax dollars are used for the LWCF, since the general tax-funded budget of the U.S. is not tapped to put money into the fund.

SUPPLEMENTAL ITEMS:

Two of President Donald Trump’s tweets on the LWCF read as follows:

  • PRESIDENT TRUMP: “I am calling on Congress to send me a Bill that fully and permanently funds the LWCF and restores our National Parks. When I sign it into law, it will be HISTORIC for our beautiful public lands. ALL thanks to @SenCoryGardner and @SteveDaines, two GREAT Conservative Leaders!” (President Trump, @realDonaldTrump, Twitter, 3/03/2020)
  • PRESIDENT TRUMP: “I commend the hard work of Senator @SteveDaines and @SenCoryGardner in protecting funding for the Land and Water Conservation Fund for years to come. The citizens of Montana and Colorado thank you both!” (President Trump, @realDonaldTrump, Twitter, 3/03/2020)

Here are two more U.S. newspaper editorial excerpts:

BILLINGS GAZETTE EDITORIAL BOARD: “[A] bipartisan group of U.S. senators, including both of Montana’s senators, … called for permanent reauthorization and full funding of the LWCF. We agree and challenge the senators to insist that this urgent program be restored and funded at the level promised when the law was enacted in 1965. Today, the annual funding amount should be $900 million. … The royalties from tapping the public’s offshore natural resources should be used to keep America’s public lands natural and open to the public. Congress must act soon to restore and fully fund the LWCF.” (Editorial, “Congress Should Renew LWCF Before Christmas,” Billings Gazette, 12/4/2018)

BOZEMAN DAILY CHRONICLE EDITORIAL BOARD: “LWCF has accomplished a great deal for Montana. In the decade ending in 2014, $240 million worth of Montana projects were funded, including the acquisition of public lands in the South Cottonwood drainage near Bozeman. It’s rare that a federal conservation program like this can be so successful – and without the use of taxpayer dollars. The list of LWCF-funded projects beneficial to the public throughout the nation is long. It was a good idea when it was created in 1965, and it’s an even better idea now.” (Editorial, “A Fully Funded LWCF Good For Montana,” Bozeman Daily Chronicle, 11/5/2019)