I spent most of my growing up years in Nebraska, and have spent plenty of time in the state’s incomparable Sand Hills.
The Sand Hills are an enormous area of grassy dunes, cowboys, cows and wildlife of all sorts. My last real time spent there was a glorious ride on my old Heritage Softail along with my friend Bob Furstenau about 10 years ago as we cruised through and around Valentine, Chadron, Ft. Robinson and Broken Bow (where we made a pit stop for some of the best BBQ either of us have ever had) as well as other tiny and timeless Western burgs. This vast area is where real cowboys and real cowgirls live. (Want a good read about the Sand Hills? Look into John Janovy’s Keith County Journal. An incredible picture of this rich, diverse, mind-boggling dune-scape.)
Untold numbers of bison and antelope once roamed freely and were sustenance for Native Americans, the chieftains and warriors of which make regular appearances on the Facebook page of my friend Mort Mortensen. He’s kept the memories and heritage of the Sand Hills alive for me. (Of course, the incursion of the white man, and our wholesale slaughter of the bison, put a halt to the Native American presence in the Sand Hills. To add insult to injury, we largely exiled the tribes elsewhere.)
I’ve walked Sand Hills, a top 15 golf course in the world. (If I had one final round to play, it would be there.) Fly lines have been wetted in Pine Creek and the Dismal River and other spots whose names I’ve long since forgotten. Brown trout have been caught and released in these waters.
What remains fresh in my mind, however, is what a treasure these ever-shifting hillocks of sand are, not just to me but to others.
So comes now a continued push for the Keystone pipeline which would transport an oil-laden slurry from Canada to Texas. This is troubling to me because the pipeline would sit above one of the world’s great freshwater aquifers – the Ogallala Aquifer. It’s a shallow ocean of water that flows north to south at roughly a foot per day a scant 50 to 300 feet below the sandy surface. This water table runs from the Dakotas down Texas way. Ranchers use wind power to keep stock tanks full with this cold, clear resource. I know – because back in the day I dipped water bottles beneath the spigots that fill these circular tanks. Yet I didn’t depend every day on this underground reservoir – but there are people who do.
That should be of great concern. All the ‘promised’ jobs would be temporary. The potential impact of a ruptured pipeline – is it a potential terrorist target? – would be lasting. I’ve heard the arguments about minimal environmental impact but as we found in the Gulf of Mexico and with increasing evidence that fracking indeed causes groundwater contamination, water quality doesn’t seem to be top-of-mind for many people, particularly those for whom ‘environment’ is a dirty, job killing word. Once the oil genie escapes the bottle, there’s no putting it back in.
My friends in North Carolina might wonder why I meddle in something so far away, but if we don’t have clean water, what do we have? Keystone would only serve to fuel our energy gluttony. Of course, my puny little blog will have no effect whatsoever on the outcome of this contentious debate. But having lived in Nebraska and with a brother living (floating?) in Grand Island which sits squarely atop this most fragile aquifer, if I had a vote I’d lock the door and throw away the key on Keystone.
(Note: The Keystone route has shifted eastward from earlier announced plans but as of November 18, 2014 it would still slice diagonally through South Dakota and down into eastern Nebraska – and the northern portions of the Ogallala Aquifer would still be affected.)