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New Keystone XL Route: Out of the Sandhills, but Still in the Aquifer

Nebraska landowners say their primary goal to protect the region's water supply was forgotten in the focus only on the Sandhills.

Apr 26, 2012
Map of Neb. with new and original KXL routes

It wasn't that long ago that the people of Holt County, Neb. thought they had made a real impact on national policy.

Their opposition to the Keystone XL oil pipeline led project owner TransCanada to move the pipeline out of the Nebraska Sandhills, a fragile ecosystem that overlies the Ogallala aquifer. The company's release of the new route last week seemed to solidify that victory.

But some local landowners are feeling far from celebratory. They say their primary goal was to protect the Ogallala aquifer, but somewhere along the way, people became so intent on protecting the Sandhills that the true objective was lost.

"Water has always been first and foremost in our mind," said Tom Genung of Hastings, Neb., who owns ranchland in Holt County. "We were promised everything would be okay if [the pipeline] got out of the Sandhills ... but it's not."

TransCanada's new route is currently just a "corridor"—a 2,000-foot wide path that will eventually be whittled down to a narrower route. It is among several possible routes identified in a 54-page report that TransCanada submitted last week to Nebraska's Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ), the state agency in charge of the pipeline's environmental review.

The company's preferred corridor avoids the Sandhills of southwest Holt County, just as TransCanada promised it would. But it still crosses through northern Holt County, where the soil is often sandy and permeable and the water table is high—the same characteristics that make the Sandhills so vulnerable to the impact of an oil spill.

In some parts of the new corridor, the groundwater lies so close to the surface that the pipeline would run through the aquifer instead of over it. (See map of TransCanada's preferred Keystone XL route.)

Hydrogeologist Jim Goeke, a professor emeritus at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, said an oil spill in northern Holt County would contaminate the local groundwater, just as it would in southwestern Holt County. "You still have the same kind of problems, essentially, but you get around the Sandhills, and that was the purpose of the rerouting."

The landowners' disappointment is compounded by the popular perception that the new route has addressed Nebraskans' concerns.

Ken Winston, a policy advocate with the Nebraska Sierra Club said some of those involved in the original fight have "kind of a sense of, 'well, we won that battle didn't we, so why do we have to refight it?'"

Winston said his group will continue to oppose the pipeline. "The main message we've been sending to our members is, the fight isn't over ... and that the latest routing proposal is just another example of why we need to continue fighting."

But the fight this time is being waged with fewer resources. Last fall, combined pressure from thousands of Nebraskans and national environmental groups forced Nebraska lawmakers to hold a special session to hammer out the Sandhills reroute. Since then, many organizations have pulled back, leaving local groups like Winston's Sierra Club chapter and Jane Kleeb's Bold Nebraska more or less on their own.

"Part of it is just that there are so many issues out there for environmental groups to work on," Winston said. "There's still support, it's just not on the same level. We still have connections. There's definitely no alienation or anything like that."

He said it's also harder to motivate people to fight when TransCanada has yet to submit their federal permit application. "It's kind of like punching at air."

Sandhills vs. the Aquifer

Much of the debate over the success of the reroute comes from the perception that protecting the Sandhills is the same as protecting the aquifer. The Ogallala aquifer is a critically important water source spanning eight states. Nebraska's ecologically sensitive Sandhills region sits directly on top of the aquifer, but the aquifer extends far beyond the Sandhills' borders.

"Originally, everyone was talking about the Sandhills and the aquifer," said Ernie Fellows, a retired rancher who lives near Mills, Neb., about three miles from where the pipeline would cross into the state. "Somehow when the special session came around the aquifer got dropped, and we've been having trouble getting people to talk about both together again."

Hydrogeologist Jim Goeke said the legislature's decision to "specifically concentrate on the Sandhills…left an open door for TransCanada."

The legislature's narrow focus also contradicts a letter from Neb. Gov. Dave Heineman, who wrote to President Obama last August urging him to deny the pipeline, because "maintaining and protecting Nebraska's water supply is very important to me and the residents of Nebraska."

"I want to emphasize that I am not opposed to pipelines," Heineman wrote. "... I am opposed to the proposed Keystone XL Pipeline route because it is directly over the Ogallala Aquifer."

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