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The Original Sandhills and Ogallala Aquifer Analysis

November 12, 2011

Here at Plains Justice we’ve gotten a number of queries in the last few days about how the uproar over the KXL route through Nebraska got started.  The story goes like this.  It was early 2010 and the Draft EIS was circulating among understaffed farm and conservation groups along the proposed route, where we gamely tried to figure out how serious an issue the pipeline might be.  I read the whole thing.  A lot of it would take a pipeline engineering background or some other form of highly technical expertise to understand, but one piece that communicated loud and clear was the discussion of aquifers along the route and the passing mention of the Nebraska Sandhills ecosystem.

As a child I lived just outside Grand Island, Nebraska, for 8 years.  If there’s one thing I learned, aside from the fact that Nebraskans love their Huskers, it’s that the Sandhills and the Ogallala aquifer are sacred.  The Sandhills are immortalized in the state hymn, and it’s no exaggeration to say that the aquifer is the basis for the state’s agricultural economy and the source of all life.  Without it, Nebraska as we know it would cease to exist.

So it seemed odd that the mighty Ogallala, Nebraska’s underground freshwater sea, received only a perfunctory notation as an aquifer to be crossed, with no further discussion, and the Sandhills seemed a mere footnote.  I called around and got myself on the phone with Dr. James Stubbendieck, Director of the Center for Great Plains Studies at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln.  I asked if he’d be willing to look at the analysis of impacts to the Sandhills and the Ogallala and write up some comments if he found anything that concerned him.  The good professor said yes and never mentioned a fee.

Dr. Stubbendieck’s pro bono analysis ran to several pages single spaced, and he allowed us to use his name and include his remarks in our group comments submitted to the State Department.  That section is reproduced below.  We like to think it had some impact on the way events have unrolled since.

B.        The DEIS does not adequately address the destruction of irreplaceable native grassland ecosystems and impacts on the Sand Hills

Although the DEIS acknowledges that “conservation of native prairie remnants is a high priority throughout the project area” and that the Sand Hills are “one of the few remaining examples of a functioning prairie ecosystem,” the Pipeline route will cross over 336 miles of native grasslands that may take a century or more to recover from the excavation. These are irreplaceable resources of national and international value that cannot simply be replanted.

In recent years increasing amounts of scarce remaining native grasslands have been plowed under to meet agricultural needs. The native prairie remnants on the High Plains and Great Plains are biologically unique, contain high biological diversity, and provide critical ecosystem services to the region, including carbon sequestration. Pipeline construction and operation will permanently alter this ecosystem by causing increased soil erosion, introduction and expansion of noxious weed populations, long-term damage to delicate soils, alteration of vegetation due to increased soil temperatures, and a risk of minor to catastrophic spills along the full Pipeline route.[1]

Proposed mitigation measures are inadequate to protect these delicate ecosystems. Stockpiling topsoil to a depth of 12 inches will not preserve native grasses whose root systems may extend many feet below the surface, nor will it preserve Sand Hill areas where there is no topsoil. In addition, many mitigation measures are proposed only for agricultural and residential areas, apparently leaving delicate grasslands exempted. At a minimum, all mitigation measures should apply to grassland and prairie ecosystems and be formalized as enforceable permit conditions.

There are certain specific errors and omissions in the DEIS discussion of native grassland ecosystems and the Sand Hills. Dr. James Stubbendieck, Director of the Center for Great Plains Studies at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln, assisted us by reviewing the DEIS sections related to these areas. His comments are incorporated into the discussion below.

1.  DEIS Underestimates Significance of Native Grassland Excavation

In Section 3.5.2 (under Terrestrial Vegetation), the first sentence is inaccurate with regard to the degree of alteration “by agriculture, urban, industrial development…prairie dogs”.[2]  It is inaccurate to say that native vegetation communities “throughout” the project area have been so altered. Some of these areas have been altered very little. Their excavation would represent, in some cases, the first alteration by human hands. Section 3.5.2 includes  other factual errors. For example, grasses are either bunch grasses or sodforming, not both.[3] The discussion of “Traditionally Used Native Plants” at Section 3.5.2.4 requires updating and/or additions to scientific names. It should also be stated regarding the Sand Hills that most of the lakes in this region represent the water table.[4] The risk of aquifer contamination is therefore exceptionally high in this area.

  1. 2.     DEIS Fails to Consider Fully the Risk of Noxious Weed Introduction

Table 3.5.5-4 (Noxious Weed Sources Occurring Along the Steele City Segment of the Project) underestimates the noxious weed species active in Nebraska. The DEIS does not reflect the fact that noxious weeds ‘Sericea [Chinese] lespedeza’ and Johnsongrass grow in Nebraska. Table 3.5.4-1 (Federal, State, or Local Noxious Weeds Potentially Occurring Along the Project Route) has omissions and should be revised with the assistance of a specialist in affected prairie ecosystems.

Section 3.5.5.1 does not address the fact that increasing soil temperature might allow for southern plants to move northward.  An additional concern is that the newly created microclimate may allow invasion of new noxious weeds.  Research on soil temperatures increases (Appendix L) extensively cites an article, Dunn et al., that is unpublished.  Since it has not gone through a scientific peer review process, the Dunn article should neither be used nor cited in the document.  Other cited research is primarily related to crops, and the only article on the impact of native grass species involves a natural gas pipeline installed 17 years ago.

Further research needs to be done to determine if more relevant and newer peer-reviewed research exists that can provide a stronger basis for decision-making. The small section regarding revegetation monitoring (Appendix L, section v.) discusses a CRP field re-established after a crude oil pipeline was installed, but again the research is not in a peer-reviewed journal and was conducted by a paid environmental service firm. The 20-50% increase in temperature they quote from the Knapp article is not a correct conclusion from the article.  It is an overstatement.  The Knapp article is attached to these comments as an exhibit.

  1.                         3.  DEIS Plans Inadequately for Revegetation

At several points, the DEIS makes faulty assumptions, proposes insufficient measures, or is unclear about revegetation planning for highly sensitive areas. For example, one growing season of discouraging livestock grazing will be inadequate for establishment.  Establishment will likely take five to ten years.[5] The recommendation by regulatory agencies on prohibiting burning also is not clear.[6] The DEIS is unclear on whether local ecotypes will be used for seed mixes in replanting and offers no supporting evidence for the assertion that the reseeding plan will restore the biodiversity that will be destroyed by the construction process.[7] Dr. Stubbendieck believes it will not.

Recovery time projected for “Vegetation Communities of Concern” is inadequate.[8] It is not clear if prairie dog burrows will be encouraged or even allowed on the ROW post-construction. The DEIS does not clarify whether the predicted sagebrush re-establishment time is related to re-planting or natural colonizing. Monitoring in the recovery phase must last longer than just one year, and evaluation of revegetation success by “visual survey” is inadequate.[9] A sampling technique should be developed that requires more quantitative figures versus the proposed qualitative method.  For example, a system evaluating percent cover or botanical composition of each species should be employed.

For the Sand Hills region, certain specifics are lacking or inappropriate to the unique soil conditions. There is little topsoil development in this area, so stockpiling it would be of little value on the uplands.[10]  Revegetation methods specific to the Sand Hills are inadequate.  Some are untested in the region (such as imprinting the soil). Wind erosion is a major concern that remains unaddressed.  Fencing would also be needed to remove animal traffic in these areas.

The sixth bullet point in Section 3.5.5 fails to discuss the impact of increased soil temperatures on the soil microbial community or the impact on native vegetation. Section 3.5.5.1 (General Vegetation Resources paragraph) misrepresents the length of time it will take for vegetation to establish to preconstruction conditions.  Studies have shown a much longer re-establishment period, for example, 20-40 years in the shortgrass prairie, but less time for Sand Hills or tallgrass prairies. In Section 3.5.5.1, it is unclear whether the time period for shrubland re-establishment would be if the shrubs were re-introduced or natural colonization was allowed to occur.

Finally, we note that Section 3.8 (Threatened and Endangered Species) omits consideration of the federally endangered Blowout Penstemon (Penstemon haydenii) population in Rock County, Nebraska.


[1] DEIS at 3.5.5.

[2] DEIS 3.5.2.

[3] DEIS 3.5.2.1.

[4] DEIS 3.5.2.1.

[5] DEIS 3.5-34, last bullet point.

[6] DEIS 3.5-32, 4th bullet point.

[7] DEIS 3.5-33, 3rd bullet point from the bottom.

[8] DEIS 3.5.5.2.

[9] DEIS 3.5-36.

[10] DEIS 3.5-36 and 3.5-37.

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. rhonda houston permalink
    November 12, 2011 3:28 pm

    Through my research concerning all of which the State Department was supposed to consider in regards to Nebraska’s agricultural economy and ecosystem on which and through which the TransCanadian Keystone Pipe Line was to travel, was never noted in the orginal report that ‘OKed’ the completion of this pipeline, nor was the informaton mentioned that had been created by the Director of the Center for Great Plains Studies at the University of Nebraska, Dr. James Stubbendieck. This vital input of information was ignored or deleted within the final papers at the State Department, all of which undoubtedly needed to be addressed, and should have been considered since it was through this area that this pipeline was going to be traveling. Also, from my research, from a scientific information posted in Oct 2011, there has been a confirmed report that at the depth of 3300 ft within the ocean off of Galveston, Texas, there still remains a reported existance of oil from that BP spill that is still in existance, and is expected to remain and affect that whole ecosystem for hundreds of years. Ignoring or forgetting to include information that would be better for pushing through a moneying making project for the good for jobs and those interested in oil, but not necessarily for those who are left behind to live with what has been ignored concerning that which can never be replaced or righted after what ever happens or takes place.

  2. rhonda houston permalink
    November 12, 2011 6:17 pm

    As an after thought, as I went back to doing what I usually do, after I’ve done my researching for information and then posted, the thought that keeps coming back to me is that those who pushed for this pipe line early on, seems to my way of thinking, totally underestimated and didn’t give the people who were placed in the position of having to permanently deal with this pipe line going through their living areas any credit for standing up for themselves. This happens to people when they are in charge and feel quite confident that their decisions are always right and that they know best. When the word ‘always’ pops up, I get very uncomfortable, because I prefer the word ‘most’ in most of the time’. Those in charge assumed that it was going to go through with everything they wanted to happen, without the faintest idea that those that were going to have to live and deal with this pipeline, won’t for some ominous reason, use their voice to show their true feelings about being invaded by a money-making project, which didn’t have their real benefits spelled out clearly, but mostly what they were going to have to accept. And nothing concerning this project would be never going to be in or for their direct benefit. It’s almost like, those in charge felt that this won’t at all be totally an inconvenienced way that Americans would ever stand up against this pipeline. I was so glad to have finally heard/read about the support given by Nebraska’s lawmakers, who were in the highest pyramid of government that came to the aid of their state. I feel those individuals, on both sides of the coin that began this project, have underestimated all the people whose path, by which they have chosen to push this pipeline, and too, have both assumed too much, and have taken too much for granite about those who actually were going to ‘have to give up so much for for a few to make more money’. The feeling I have too, is that there might have been a ‘wish’ from the few, that the majority would not have spoken up loud enough to be heard, but hoped that they would have just gone ahead and ‘just lived with it’ that which was not going to their benefit, by just sitting idolly back and not speak up. I’m so proud of the state of Nebraska!

  3. corey permalink
    November 17, 2011 5:04 am

    Wonderfully said Rhonda

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