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Farmers, Once the Ogallala’s “Biggest Threat” Now Poised as its Savior

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Environmental Risks of the Keystone XL Pipeline

How the Keystone XL Pipeline will Affect the Ogallala Aquifer

The Ogallala Aquifer and the planned route of the Keystone XL Pipeline. Photo Courtesy of Environmental Defense FundAs American farmers chart a course into a hotter, drier future, there’s no avoiding the fact that they will begin to depend less on rainwater and more on aquifers for irrigation.  It is a future that in many parts of the South and Midwest is already upon them, where farming is seen as the primary threat to the long-term sustainability of groundwater.

A huge amount of farmed acreage in the U.S., about one-quarter of the nation’s cropland in eight states, has tapped into and become reliant on pumped water from the Ogallala Aquifer, one of the country’s largest sources of freshwater. Early explorers saw the Great Plains as arid, but widespread pumping from the aquifer turned it into the nation’s breadbasket.

The aquifer is thought to hold enough water to cover the lower 48 states two feet deep. It’s not news to most of us that the rate at which this water gets pumped is not sustainable; i.e. we’re pumping it faster than it can be replenished by rainwater and melting snow. In fact, most disturbingly, much of its water was absorbed thousands of millions of years ago, and once the Ogallala is drained, it will take 6,000 years to recharge with rainwater.

Now, however, farmers and ranchers in many of these states find themselves siding with environmentalists in opposition to the construction of the 1700-mile Keystone XL Pipeline, which is slated to carry crude oil from the tar sands in Alberta, Canada, to refineries in Texas. They worry about what would become of the aquifer’s fragile ecosystem if a spill occurred, and about the millions who rely on it for irrigation and drinking water. The Ogallala’s depths vary wildly, and in some parts of Nebraska it is only a few feet below the surface, which means that in some areas the pipeline would have to pass directly through the pristine water. In many parts of the Nebraska plains, ranchers don’t need irrigation to water their cattle, but can simply dig a hole and let water flow in.

Intuition tells us that oil seeping into porous, sandy soil could be quite a nightmare to contain and clean up, and a threat to this precious resource. Some hydrologists, however, counter that because much of the aquifer is like a sponge made up of gravel and sand and marbled with seams of impermeable clay and sediment, it would naturally contain a spill in a very localized area, especially given its varying gradients. They argue that spilled oil could not seep uphill, which could be a highly protective factor, since the gradient runs from west to east with 75-80 percent of the aquifer west of the proposed pipeline route.

TransCanada insists that they have the ability to quickly detect a leak through a pressure drop, and can isolate the problem segment of pipe within minutes. Executives argue, as do some hydrologists, that oil spilled would not migrate from the spot of the spill – there would be no plume of oil because of the geological features of the aquifer. TransCanada spokesman Shawn Howard reassured the investigative news site Nebraska Watchdog that TransCanada has been building pipelines for sixty years through “all kinds of sensitive areas with great success.”

Environmentalists say that crude from oil sands, known as bitumen (a semi-solid substance almost identical to asphalt), poses particular risks in a pipeline setting. Diluted bitumen can separate under pressure and temperature and create explosive natural gas, heavy compounds, and corrosive acids. In the event of a leak in a river, for example, bitumen would sink to the riverbed, rather than floating, like conventional crude. This makes it extremely difficult to recover.

Plus, a pipeline supports the extremely dirty, expensive, and energy-intensive process of tar sands extraction. The fact that it is more resource-intensive makes it more expensive, and thus not likely to compete well in the U.S. market. Thus, many farmers threatened with a pipeline through their dwindling irrigation water wonder what makes this product trump water in value – especially when that value is likely to go straight to foreign markets. It strikes many of them as more of a sacrifice than a trade-off.

Many Nebraskans, not just farmers, feel that their lives are supported by the Ogallala. As Brian Reetz of the Groundwater Foundation in Nebraska told the North Platte Telegraph, “everything that we do from in the city, to uses in agriculture all comes out of that aquifer.”

Nebraska is a red state, but as farmers and ranchers add their voices to the opposition of environmentalists, the proponents of the pipeline quickly begin to lack the upper hand. Nebraska is also one of the rare places where the aquifer is running a surplus – meaning rainwater recharges it faster than it is pumped. In these unlikely circumstances, the “not-in-my-backyard” syndrome may have significant influence in ousting a potential environmental threat to the rest of the country (and Canada).

Genevieve Slocum is a Contributor to The Free George.

The Free George is the online magazine and visitors’ guide of Upstate NY, covering things from Albany to Lake Placid, including Saratoga, the Lake George region and the Adirondacks. Check out our City Blogs section for our extended coverage areas as well.

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