The Sand Hills in Autumn

When we drove to Scottsbluff last weekend we took state Highway 2 from Dunning to Alliance through the southern Sand Hills. I have been across U.S. 20, through the northern Sand Hills (O’Neill, Valentine, and Chadron) many times but this was my first trip on Highway 2. The elevation is lower in the south so the Sand Hills have a rather different character to them. This results in a huge difference between the two areas.

The Ogallala Aquifer lies below the Sand Hills. What I did not realize is that the aquifer is very close to the surface.  This region is semi-arid and appears quite desert-like along U.S. 20 to the north. The sand dunes are covered with short grasses and vegetation suited to the dry alkaline conditions and as a result, the dunes are very stable. But when the wind blows the air still becomes gritty from all the sand. The first time I drove through the Mojave it reminded me of Valentine, Nebraska.

Because the elevation is lower in the southern Sand Hills, the aquifer sits right at ground level and the region is covered with lakes and wetlands, many of them strongly alkali. While it is technically arid, just as further north, the growth is quite lush in some areas because of the aquifer. We drove through during the fall migration and the number of waterfowl (and other birds as well, no doubt, but they weren’t as visible) was astounding. Most of the lakes were covered with ducks and wading birds.

Most striking to me was the contour of the land. When the road went over a hilltop so that it was possible to see several miles about, the hills looked like the bottom of a sandy ocean bay when one snorkels above it. The effect of wave action was unmistakable. Of course, the wave action came primarily from wind rather than water, during the periods when there was little or no vegetation and the dunes “migrated freely” around western Nebraska. (See Thinking Like a Dune Field for an in-depth explanation of the Sand Hills phenomenon). But whether from wind or water, the waves of grass-covered sand, with lakes and marshes in between, were mysteriously beautiful as they shimmered in the afternoon autumn sun.

Of course the Sand Hills are in the news now, not because of their beauty, history, or wildlife, but rather because of the proposed Keystone XL pipeline which will eventually (if it is ever built) carry oil and gas from Alberta and North Dakota to refineries in Oklahoma, Texas, and Louisiana.

Just a note on terminology: There is already a pipeline that passes directly through the Sand Hills (and directly above the Ogallala Aquifer) called the Keystone pipeline. The Keystone has been operational for a couple of years. The proposed Keystone XL is an extension of the existing pipeline (ie, Keystone Extension Line).

Brenda recently completed a Master Naturalist course sponsored by the University of Nebraska. Although neither the Sand Hills nor the pipeline were the focus of the course, the subject came up frequently. It was particularly interesting to me that her instructors with particular expertise in the Sand Hills and the aquifer were of the opinion that the Ogallala Aquifer is far more resilient than most people assume. The aquifer is quite capable of cleaning up and neutralizing stuff that gets poured on top of it (such as crude oil, if the unthinkable should happen). According to the Nebraska Natural Resource District literature about the Sand Hills (written before the current brouhaha over the Keystone XL), the real aquifer damage is caused by small dams (such as those created for livestock ponds), water wells, roads, and other surface damage to the Sand Hills. Areas that are disturbed often dry up, sometimes temporarily, sometimes permanently. The mechanism that causes this is still not understood.

But quite frankly, all the technicalities don’t interest me a great deal. It was the lake alongside the road with two dozen duck butts sticking up in the air as their shameless owners browsed the lake bottom, that I found utterly fascinating. It was the curlews, sandpipers, and avocets darting along the shore in search of bugs that caught my attention. It was the hope of seeing the pelicans (which seemed to have already moved to warmer climes – not a pelican in sight this trip) and raptors (which were abundant) that kept me interested over the endless miles of western Nebraska.

But since I’ve brought the subject up, I will weigh in on the pipeline. Have you ever seen or read about the environmental damage we humans have created on the Saudi peninsula as we have drilled for oil? Of course, that’s a long way away, so we can pretend it’s not happening. Is western Nebraska any more holy than the Saudi Peninsula? (Well, granted Tom Osborne comes from western Nebraska, but technically he’s not a Sand Hills boy, he’s from the Platte River basin.) Modernity inevitably results in a certain amount of environmental degradation.  And I would argue that we’ll cause a lot less degradation if we drill it in and ship it through our back yard instead of somebody else’s backyard half way around the world. If we do it here we’ll actually care about it and thus keep a much closer eye on it.

And, by the way, this assumption may be grossly inaccurate. To see the wanton destruction in certain parts of northern Alberta is rather shocking. We humans haven’t exactly done a good job of keeping the Canadian tar sands region pristine. But I will still argue that we have a better chance of cleaning up our own back yard than we do a peninsula half way around the world.

So, to the extent that I care, I’m a supporter of the new pipeline. Furthermore, if they’ll let me rest my binoculars on the pipeline so that I can get a good look at a few thousand ducks and a few dozen raptors, I’ll truly be a happy camper. If I can sit on the pipe line while curlews dive bomb me and squack their little beaks off, I’ll be in ecstacy.

But somehow I suspect that leaning on a pipeline with a pair of binoculars in one’s hands is a terrorist activity. And from that perspective, the pipeline (whether for or against it) is the least of our worries.

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