In the Path of the Pipeline, Part Two

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Runnels of water in the Sandhills, August 2012. (Adrian Olivera)

By William Beachly

Part one of this article in our November 2012 issue described Professor Beachly’s observations of the Sandhills and the potential damage the Keystone XL pipeline could bring to this unique ecosystem. Part two provides a conclusion and a warning.

The Gathering Storm

After emerging from Otter Canyon, we cross the Niobrara, heading north, and pass Carl’s pickup headed south. We do a “Huey” and catch up with him at his ranch, where an interesting ensemble of antique vehicles peek out from clumps of sunflowers and hemp. He knows we are interested in some pictures over the river and leads us up a sandy road that climbs the high, rounded shoulders of the north bank, offering an excellent view to the west. One cloud in particular doesn’t look like a regular cloud, as it rises directly from the ground and is “anviling” like a thunderhead. It is a cloud of smoke.

The Ainsworth radio station has been calling on volunteers to bring supplies to the fire crews working on the fire set by lightning by Fairfield Creek. It started south of the Niobrara, skipped over where the Norden Dam was proposed in the ’70s and is threatening the small community of Norden about 12 miles north. It has been near or above 100 degrees all week, and the winds are very unpredictable here, except for the certainty they are blowing somewhere. The pasture at our feet is crackling dry and tawny. “We aren’t getting half the hay we are used to when we mow,” Carl laments, “and the cattle have grazed the rest down to sand.” I follow a copse of oak forest nestled in one of the bucolic little valleys where a stream would flow in better times and in another ravine where a dam retains a “wannabe” pond. No cattle are in the pastures; they’re huddled in some shade in the riverbank. “I never needed to pump water for years here, the springs and river were enough,” Carl continues, “so the fellow from the state water resources office asks me, ‘have I used my water rights in last three years?’, and I tell him the truth, ‘No’. That’s it, he leaves, and then I find out my grandfather’s water rights are gone. Just stolen. And yet the power district says they can claim all the water rights between Cornell Dam up in Valentine and Spencer Dam downstream. That’s just crazy.” Sediment accumulation stopped power generation at Cornell in 1985, but Spencer Dam produces at peak about the same electricity as the two new wind turbines we can see to the north of here by Springview.

Water law has always been crazy. John Wesley Powell had some really good ideas for western development, like drawing political boundaries along watershed divides, but eastern senators would have none of that and surveyors like arbitrary straight lines. European water laws just don’t fit the situation out here. And what to do about groundwater? In the late ’70s when those corporations put pivots with high-volume pumps in Holt County, the drawdown from the wells caused wet meadows to dry up on adjacent ranches. But there’s no law against it. The Sandhills’ hydrology is truly unique.

You might think the most constant flowing river in the U.S. would be back east, or in the Pacific Northwest where rains are regular and drought is rare, but the Dismal River holds that distinction. While the Niobrara’s flow is about 85 percent spring fed at Norden , the Dismal is 99.9 something percent. The Dismal’s entire length is within the Sandhills, in parts entrenched 250 feet in sand canyons with bubbling artesian springs where deep, cold groundwater is forced up with enough force to suspend sand. One of these über-quicksand pools appears to be 5 inches deep, until you jump in. In fact it is over 90 feet deep. After the cold shock, you realize you are bobbing like a cork without treading water. Every orifice of your body fills with sand, but you could not drown if you tried, the upthrust of the spring is so great. This subsurface flow causes minimal erosion, unlike surface runoff on harder soils, and the water is crystal clear after the sand settles. The Niobrara gains approximately 1,000 cubic feet per second from groundwater flows, only part of which is apparent in streams like Otter Creek. Since the bed of the Niobrara is slick bedrock, here the amazing thrust is horizontal. It moves prodigious quantities of sand, and its overall velocity from source to mouth is among the fastest anywhere.

All that afternoon we visited with landowners and photographed creeks in the path of the pipeline. Spring Creek in Keya Paha County (the epithet is necessary because Nebraska has so many Spring Creeks) winds vigorously through bur oak savannas that resemble California’s wine country. It flows north into the Keya Paha River, whose broad, gentle valley slopes are broken to the northeast by a dogtooth ridge of shale buttes. On the eastern horizon, toward Boyd County, we see another rising cloud of smoke. To the west, the Fairfield Creek firestorm is literally becoming a storm as smoke particles seed cumulus clouds, the kind that bring dry lightning but little rain. It becomes a vicious cycle, I think, not unlike the climate change effects on carbon storage (mostly the lack thereof, as natural vegetation is cut or toasted, methane escapes from drying tundra and wetlands and our response is to liberate CO2 from fossil fuels at an even greater rate).

Carl had told us how TransCanada had considered a route farther east, through Boyd County, but quickly realized they would touch a sore spot and stir up a hornet’s nest of opposition. The sore spot began in the ’90s when Nebraska joined an interstate consortium to dispose of low-level (but very long-lasting) radioactive waste and Boyd County was picked as the facility site. Landowner opposition was quick to organize and question the wisdom of the choice where the water table was shallow. Then-governor Nelson put a stop to it by withdrawing from the compact. Some learned that you can fight a bad idea with grassroots organizing, and such has been the success of the groups who united against the original route planned for the Keystone XL. So the new route was deflected to the southeast through Holt County, bearing south at Neligh to Central City, where it would dive under the Platte, then trend southeast to Jefferson County. Most of this proposed route overlies the Ogallala Aquifer. But our main concern today is to get to know some of the streams that would be crossed in the sandy northern leg.

On Laura Muensch’s ranch we visit Clay Creek, so called because below the sandy mantle the stream cuts into Late Cretaceous shales, gray and flaky remnants of the last inland seacoast. In one bank there are vertical faults, cracked by later seismic activity, where selenite crystals formed that look like amber sheets of peanut brittle, but with angular spikes. It reminds me that occasional earthquakes have occurred in this area, sometimes damaging foundations. Beaver Creek offers a cool, shady respite for a Bible Camp, and Big Sandy Creek, well, the name says it all. All are fed by springs—clear and cold. Some may harbor rare fish like the Topeka shiner, which had been a “missing in action” species since the 1940s until some were found in the headwater forks of the Elkhorn. All are in the path of the pipeline.

At dusk Cindy, Adrian and I hike to the crest of a high dune on her father’s ranch. “This is where we used to go sledding, right down this blowout,” says Linda, “…and once my brother pulled an Evel Kinevel stunt off the edge and nearly got killed.” As Adrian sets up a time exposure to capture the Milky Way, I contemplate the horizon. There’s a small ranch house light and a distant airport beacon on the horizon, but no other obvious signs of civilization. Oh, there are cows of course and a barbed-wire fence, but off to the north, the neighbor’s herd of bison graze among the dunes. Farther still is a line of thunderheads generated by the fires, and to the northwest their belly glows orange as the Fairfield Creek fire rages on. Either heat lightning is striking the ground or the storms are so far off we cannot hear thunder. I feel I could be watching what James McKay saw when he passed through here in 1795. I wonder what the scene will be like two centuries from now. What if we get a drought that lasts not a few years but multiple decades? Tree rings in ponderosa pines reveal it’s happened before. Combined with climate change, as happened in the Medieval Warm Period when Eirik the Red and his clan colonized Greenland and Labrador, we could see the dunes set free. They would be unstoppable, crossing roads, towns and railroads, even damming streams (if the streams are flowing at all). Sand dams are responsible for some of the Sandhills lakes today, and created a gigantic lake where Lake McConaughy now lies. Each year we witness weather events that, by themselves, may have happened before, but it’s the combined frequency, the unnatural speed of change, that really scares me. I know as a biologist that organisms have adjusted their range and characteristics since the last ice age as our climate gradually warmed, but as ice bubbles in thick polar glaciers attest, this rate of change is unprecedented. One thing seems certain, if we add all the CO2 trapped now in the Athabascan tar sands and disrupt even more of the boreal forest to get at it, we can only push closer to a tipping point that will greatly change the Nebraska our grandchildren inhabit (if they choose to stay). I fear there will be but a fraction of the great diversity I’ve seen today in prairies, woodlands, rivers and streams. I fear what they will think of us—of our consumption, of our dash to use resources faster and deeper and bulldoze over whatever lies in our path. I sincerely hope none ever have to look over a tar-stained streambed, devoid of wildlife, and ask, “What were they thinking?”

Immigration in Nebraska