When James Goeke stood in western Nebraska for the first time, he thought it was the most desolate and desperate place he’d ever been.
This was 1970 and Goeke had just joined the team at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s Conservation and Survey Division where he still works as a hydrologist. He never would have guessed it, but someday he would own a chunk of western Nebraska and cherish it as much as any person could.
Scattered around the state are close to 6,000 holes each about 5 inches in diameter drilled to the base of the Ogallala Aquifer. During the 1970s, Goeke drilled about 1,000 of those holes in the deepest part of the aquifer.
“I’ve seen more Ogallala than anybody else certainly in the Conservation and Survey Division,” he said.
The Ogallala Aquifer is 174,000 square miles of water-bearing sediment under Colorado, Kansas, Nebraska, New Mexico, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Texas and Wyoming – one of the largest in the world.
The largest and deepest portion of the aquifer is in Nebraska. For a sense of how much water is really there, imagine this: Since the first use of the aquifer for farmland irrigation, Nebraskans have used less than half of 1 percent of their portion of the aquifer.
When TransCanada proposed the original Keystone XL pipeline route in May 2010, the Ogallala Aquifer, named for a site three miles east of Ogallala, Neb., caused a storm of great concern among scientists, activists, farmers, landowners and conservationists. Groups formed for the sole purpose of fighting the pipeline’s creation. Politicians demanded more information for their constituents. Protestors marched on Washington.
Goeke picked up his phone and called TransCanada, firing off every relevant question he could think of. After all, he knew what he was asking about. He has drilled more holes, a process that holds great importance in a range of scientific and economic decisions, in the Ogallala Aquifer than any other person.
He said TransCanada could answer every question and was honest and forthcoming. That didn’t immediately quiet all his reluctance, so he continued his research until he came to a conclusion: The Keystone XL pipeline is not a serious threat to the Ogallala Aquifer.
“A lot of people in the debate about the pipeline talk about how leakage would foul the water and ruin the entire water supply in the state of Nebraska and that’s just a false,” he said.
His explanation is simple.
Seventy-five to 80 percent of the aquifer lies west of the proposed pipeline route. The aquifer is sloped downward going east. If there were a spill, that entire section is unavailable to be harmed because water cannot move uphill. The 15 to 20 percent left, Goeke says, is in very little risk thanks to abundant fine-grain clays, sediment and sandstone separating the aquifer and potential contaminants from the pipeline.
While Goeke agrees 20 percent would be a problem, he thinks the chances of a leak reaching the aquifer are very minimal.
“It can’t get down to the water table because of the nature of the sediments in the unsaturated zone,” he said.
Goeke likens pipelines to the fear of flying.
“You’re flying at 30,000 feet going 500 miles an hour, and you don’t have a parachute, and that plane can crash,” Goeke said. “Pipelines in Nebraska are similar to flying airplanes. They get the job done, and sometimes the plane might crash. But overall, they’re safe, and I think that pipelines are similarly safe.”
Still, as Goeke mentioned, a plane can crash. And a pipeline can leak. So even if the leak were minor, it would not be easy to handle, he said.
Groups such as BOLD Nebraska and the Sierra Club have focused on those metaphoric plane crashes, though, in their opposition to the pipeline. They oppose it for many reasons, including the risk of a spill into the Ogallala Aquifer and the delicate Sandhills that cover northern Nebraska.
“One of the reasons we have such a concern for it is because of the fact that the area most highly impacted is an area where there is porous soils, and it’s easy for contaminants, or any fluid, to get into the aquifer – including what will be found in the pipeline,” said Ken Winston, a policy advocate at the Nebraska chapter of the Sierra Club.
Winston said the Sierra Club, an environmental advocacy organization, opposed the Keystone XL pipeline from the very day TransCanada proposed the route. He cites three reasons, in addition to the risk of polluting the Ogallala Aquifer for the opposition: the tar sands process, TransCanada’s treatment of Nebraska landowners and TransCanada’s track record for spills.
After initial concern from Nebraskans and Republican Gov. Dave Heineman, TransCanada proposed a revised route in September 2012. The new route avoids the Sandhills, where the most delicate sands and a high water table could struggle to contain a spill. Heineman has since approved the new route and sent a letter to President Obama urging him to approve the pipeline.
The area of concern is in southwest Holt County. While the revised pipeline goes around the border of the Sandhills, it has been pushed farther into and with greater distance across Holt County, where the water table isn’t quite as high.
Goeke said Holt County still has relatively high water tables, 20-30 feet below the earth’s surface, but that “the materials are clay enough that they would attenuate any leakage.”
The only area of concern regarding water pollution, according to Goeke, occurs where the pipeline will have to be pulled under the Platte River and through the 12-mile-wide valley, where the water table is high or near the earth’s surface. The solution will be to pull the pipelines 40 feet below the bed of the Platte River, where Niobrara shale, an impermeable stone, will separate the pipeline from the water supply. In that area, the pipeline will also be double its original thickness, lined in rubber and cased in cement. Extra valves will also be added to ensure any leak could be shut off.
“It’s going to be well-protected,” Goeke said.
Winston isn’t convinced. He said TransCanada’s definition of the boundaries of the Sandhills changed since the revised route.
“TransCanada proposed map in 2008 that included an area they now say is outside the Sandhills,” he said. “Their own representation should control what they define as the Sandhills. The Sandhills issue has not been resolved. I don’t believe peoples’ concerns have been addressed.”
Goeke said a spill in the Sandhills, although messy, would be localized.
“Even if you put the pipeline through the Sandhills, which they aren’t, the materials would immediately restrict leakage and TransCanada could clean up any spills,” Goeke said.
Regardless of the risk of the pipeline, Julene Bair thinks Nebraskans are overlooking some important details.
Bair, author of “One Degree West: Reflections of a Plainsdaughter” and “The Ogallala Road,” set to release in 2014, wrote an op-ed for The New York Times regarding Nebraskans’ worries of the oil polluting their aquifer when they themselves are polluting the aquifer with industrial farming chemicals.
“I wish all the attention the Ogallala Aquifer is getting because of the pipeline extended to industrial agriculture,” she said.
Ninety percent of shallow groundwater samples from the Ogallala contained nitrate, according to a 2009 report by the U.S. Geological Survey. Nitrate and other chemicals such as atrazine, a popular herbicide, trickle through sediment with rain, making a slow but apparent journey into groundwater. The levels of industrial chemicals are below the levels allowed by the government, but are increasing at what is called “creeping normalcy.”
Patrick O’Brien with the Nebraska Association of Natural Resources Districts also said the biggest contamination to the Ogallala Aquifer is nitrates, which can be sourced to fertilizers and waste.
“To manage (high nitrate levels), all of the districts have developed a ground water-management plan, which will layout triggers and then steps to follow if a trigger is hit,” he said.
If the pipeline were to spring a leak, though, that would be out of his control, he said. That’s a point-source problem, meaning the contamination can be sourced to one particular point, and the Nebraska Department of Environmental Quality takes charge of those, O’Brien said.
Officials at the NDEQ did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
Bair thinks the general misunderstanding of aquifers and how they work is what leads to the pollution.
“A lot of people have this impression that the aquifer is this giant underground lake and that if you drop chemicals into one end of it, they’ll show up in the other end of it, and that’s not what it is,” Bair said.
While she thinks the Keystone XL pipeline is negative for other reasons, such as burning fossil fuels, she wants Nebraskans to understand the current state of the aquifer.
“My sense of it is that when you have a spill, it’d be worse in the Sandhills than anywhere else,” Bair said. “But I don’t think it would be nearly as bad as it was being made out to be.”
Goeke blames Nebraskans’ emotional attachment to the aquifer for any absolute opposition to the pipeline.
And although Winston said he concedes his knowledge of aquifers to Goeke, he questions Goeke’s motive, although Goeke works for a non-political organization.
“I kind of wonder if he feels like he’s been forced into a position of supporting the pipeline because he thinks people don’t really understand hydrology and aquifers,” Winston said.
“People get attached to the Sandhills and the Ogallala and they don’t want to consider anything that might endanger the resource,” Goeke said. “And even if you explain that any spill would be very localized, they just don’t want to hear it.”