Photo: Cheryl-Samantha Owen
A confrontation is on the horizon for Nebraskan landowners and the state’s power department. To understand why, you first need a crash course in the massive and bizarre geography underlying these opposing forces: The Nebraska sandhills.
Describing the sandhills is like describing a collision between three entirely different ecosystems. First of all, it constitutes the largest sand dune formation in America. Secondly, and contrary to expectation, that formation is 95 percent grassland. And as if that weren’t odd enough, that sandy grassland sits on top of 1 billion acre-feet of groundwater, rendering about 1.3 million acres of it into wetlands.
Aaron Price, a Save the Sandhills board member, rides a horse over the sandhill dunes. (Image: Cheryl-Samantha Owen)
According to the World Wildlife Fund, “The irregular dunes and sandy soils of the sandhills are so distinct within the Great Plains as to warrant elevation of the Nebraska Sandhills to its own ecoregion.”
Depending on who’s counting, the ecoregion stretches between 19,000 and 24,000 square miles in circumference, or nearly one-third of the entire state. Perhaps most unique of all, the soil’s inability to support farming or other development has enabled it to remain largely undisturbed throughout North American history. The WWF estimates that as much as 85 percent of the sandhills are still intact.
Altogether, the region supports roughly 720 species of plants, 314 species of animals – including one of the few stable populations of greater prairie chicken – and at least 24 species of migratory birds of “management concern,” according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The soil has proved inhospitable to cultivation, but several generations of landowners have made a decent living raising cattle in this sea of grass and scrub.
It’s Not Farmland
Despite the abundance of water in the region, farming attempts have invariably resulted in failure. The climate itself is semi-arid, without enough rainfall to sustain row crops. In addition, the soil in many areas is too loose and lacking in nutrients to grow anything without significant amounts of fertilizer and irrigation, and that brings with it its own problems.
Because of the porous soil, any fertilizer or agrichemicals used on the land seeps right down into the water table, potentially contaminating the local groundwater. This is why a coalition of Nebraskans oppose the planned Keystone XL pipeline, which would transfer super-dense crude from the Canadian tar sands to U.S. refineries. Any leaks in the pipeline would leach down into the massive Ogallala aquifer, the source of fresh water for eight states in the High Plains and the South.
Development in the region has also been stunted by the sandhills’ most treacherous hazard: Blowouts.
“If you get a spot opened up in the soil, it’s where the wind then keeps that sand moving and you lose all your vegetation there,” said Lynn Ballagh, a Nebraska landowner whose family has lived in the sandhills since 1885. “And they’re very, very hard to heal back up, just because the soil is so sandy. That’s what the farmers found out when they tried in places putting in pivots and growing corn.
“These blowouts,” continued Ballagh, “if you get them started, and if we have a dry year like 2012 or an exceptional winter with a lot of wind where vegetation has quit growing, then it just enlarges these areas and makes them deeper and deeper.”
Ballagh is a board member and co-founder of Save the Sandhills, an organization that was formed in 2014 in response to a massive development project planned for the ecoregion.
According to the Nebraska Public Power District (NPPD), the north central portion of the state has reached its power limit. This has necessitated a more robust electricity delivery system, which would be built between the Gerald Gentleman Station near Sutherland to a new substation east of Thedford. The 220-mile transmission line, dubbed the R-Project, would carry 345,000 volts across seven counties.
These seven counties all lie within the sandhills, and that’s why landowners like Lynn Ballagh are concerned. To build the R-Project, the NPPD will have to erect a series of 130-150 foot lattice towers across an area that has few roads, uneven terrain and a history of unforgiving soil.
“What they’re proposing is to have an easement of 200 feet wide,” said Ballagh, “but they’re admitting that they won’t be able to go down that easement because of the rough terrain and because of the steepness of the hills and the wetness of the wet meadows. So they’re wanting additional access to go through our pastures to get to their easement – and of course we know that the more travel and the more access they have with heavy equipment, the more problems they’re going to cause as far as damage to the soil and to the environment.”
Ballagh, like most of his fellow Save the Sandhills members, lives along the final route of the transmission line. Like Ballagh, many of their families have been living on the land for over 100 years.
The NPPD has been diligent in its public comment process – holding public hearings and open houses for the past two years to answer residents’ questions and take their advice. Yet Ballagh and others do not feel the Department is fully aware of the inherent hazards of the sandhills, nor the irreversible damage they are likely to cause.
“There’s never been a transmission line of this magnitude put through the center of the sandhills,” said Ballagh. “They’re pretty unforgiving, as far as great big development.”
The Case for the Transmission Line: ‘We Have a Good Plan’
Tom Kent is the vice-president and Chief Operating Officer for the NPPD. He is also the sponsor for the R-Project and the Department’s representative with the Southwest Power Pool (SPP), a nine-state consortium based out of Little Rock, Arkansas.
In an interview with Planet Experts, Kent said that there are three components driving the construction of the R-Project. One is current transmission constraints. “We have plenty of generation available,” he said, “but we were running into transmission limits. […] As a transmission system operator we have to meet reliability standards, and that requires us to be able to serve the area with all the facilities in service.”
Another reason for the line is to reduce congestion on the state’s electric grid system. The last is that it will provide the additional capacity needed for future renewable projects, especially wind generation. “That part of the state is a very wind rich area,” said Kent, adding that Nebraska ranks third in the country in terms of potential wind capacity.
Kent is aware that not all Nebraskans are enthusiastic about the project, but he contends that it will ultimately benefit the state.
“I do believe that some people think that this is being driven by outside forces, by the Southwest Power Pool, by others outside of Nebraska to benefit outside of Nebraska,” he said. “The true nature of this project is it’s important to Nebraskans, it’s important to our customers, the people we serve, the residents of Nebraska, and that’s why we need to do it.”
The transmission line “is a pretty significant project,” he said, but NPPD already owns and operates over 5,000 miles of transmission in Nebraska, including 115,000 and 230,000-volt transmission lines in portions of the sandhills. “Though not at the 345,000 volt level,” Kent admits.
Still, the Department has over 200 miles of existing 115,000 volt lines in the same area of the state. “So, to say that we haven’t done a project like this before or don’t know what we’re getting into really mischaracterizes it,” he said.
He adds, “We’re native Nebraskans as well and we’re proud of the sandhills and understand the value of that ecosystem. We believe that this project can be done in a safe manner. we’re not saying that there won’t be impacts. What we’re saying is we have a good plan to minimize those impacts and address them when they happen.”
The Case Against the Transmission Line: ‘It’s Ruined Forever’
Ballagh says that his organization isn’t against building the transmission line, but the route NPPD has chosen is questionable.
“Along this east-west route that’s proposed, 125 miles right through the sandhills,” said Ballagh, “what they tried doing was drawing a straight line from Thedford and basically just drawing a straight line over to where they wanted to go.”
Ballagh believes the line was chosen based on expediency rather than landowners’ input. “One of the biggest reasons they wanted to put this thing in is there’s fewer people,” he explained, “and land prices are cheaper going through the sandhills for their easement.”
This area, he said, is full of wide open spaces with little access for vehicles or equipment. Save the Sandhills would prefer an alternate route that takes advantage of existing corridors where there is heavier soil.
“We’re not against electricity,” he said, “we’re not against the project as a whole. We’re basically against the location of the project route through the center of the Nebraska sandhills.”
Construction of the line will not formally begin until January 2017. In the meantime, NPPD will attempt to get landowners’ permission to run heavy equipment through their lands to reach the intended building sites. This not only endangers the grazing lands of the ranchers, it also poses obvious and not-so-obvious risks to the ecosystem.
Beyond the ever-present threat of blowouts is the potential for wildfires. Sparks from welders on the lattice towers could ignite the grasslands beneath, and without adequate roads in the area, fire-fighting tanker trucks would have a difficult time getting in.
Conservationists are also worried that the 150-foot tubular steel poles used for the lattice towers will provide roosting areas for predatory birds, endangering the greater prairie chicken.
The wetlands, too, pose foundational problems for the towers. In the lower interdunal valleys of the sandhills, the water table is elevated above the surface. The dunes act as sponges that absorb any precipitation, and this has allowed the region to develop the dense vegetation that makes it so conducive to ranching. It is not, however, conducive to supporting heavy loads.
“There’s some years we can’t hay them because they’re so soft,” said Ballagh. “And there isn’t much heavy soil on top, so if you fall through what sod is there then you pretty much sink down and you’re stuck.”
As in so many of his discussions with NPPD representatives, Ballagh found the Department’s solution to the problem lacking a fundamental understanding of the land.
“They say, ‘Well, we’ll use pads,’” said Ballagh. “And then when you tell them some of these meadows are a mile across, they say, ‘Well, we’ll just come into them from the side.’ And you say, ‘Well they’re a mile wide, too.’ ‘Oh. Well we’ll have to work with the landowner to figure something out.’
“And we’re just very concerned there that there’s no way to come back in once they’ve made all those ruts and tracks on your meadows,” said Ballagh. “They’re all natural grass and they’re the source of the winter feed supply for our cattle.”
During the open houses, Ballagh and his fellow landowners were disappointed to learn that few of NPPD’s agents have even ventured into the land beyond the few roads in the area.
Last month, Ballagh spoke with two NPPD reps in the open house following the announcement of the line’s final route. He wanted to know why, after two years of public commentary, the Department had chosen a path that cut through some of the most remote areas of the sandhills.
“I told those two guys, ‘I respect you as people but you’re either misinformed or uninformed. How many of those 2,500 comments were in favor of this project?’ ‘Well, we can’t tell you that. A lot of them were just general comments.’
“We had a petition drive,” said Ballagh, “and put out a statement about not wanting to let them go through this environmentally-sensitive area. We had 1,600 people sign it and a lot of them made comments on there and they said, ‘Oh, those aren’t relevant because that’s just a petition and we don’t pay any attention to petitions.'”
In a formal release on the R-Project, Tom Kent said that, “Property information we received from landowners was extremely helpful in determining the final route as we made modifications to address special issues.”
Ballagh quoted Kent, then added, “Most of us feel like they didn’t listen to us at all. And some of us wrote two and three pages of comments to them. And talked to them many times.”
During the interview, Ballagh never betrayed a sense of anger or indignation. Instead, his rough voice simply lowered into bemused disappointment:
“And the other thing that’s sad is, we’re out here for a reason. My great-grandfather homesteaded here in 1885, so we’ve been here as a family for 130 years. And there’s so many generational ranchers along this route. There’s some that have been on their land for even longer than we have, and people just don’t understand…”
He sighed. “If you go in and find out that you’ve made a mistake, it’s ruined forever as far as I’m concerned.”
Specialists brought in on land restoration seem to give ever-lengthening estimates on how long it will take to repair inevitable blowouts. At the first open houses Ballagh attended, a specialist from the southern United States said there was nothing to worry about; the land could be restored in two years.
“We’ve seen more guys come in,” said Ballagh, “and try to farm it, and that’s been 40 years ago and you can still tell in places where the grass has never recovered. But I mean, you know, you listen to them and be polite.”
Then NPPD brought in a former University of Nebraska-Lincoln range specialist, who told Ballagh it might take them 10 years to get it restored back to adequate. “So then you ask, ‘Well, what’s your definition of adequate?’ First it was two years, then it was ten years, now they’re saying they’ll restore it as best they can. I mean, that leaves a tremendous amount of gray area.”
Eminent Domain and the Future of the Sandhills
The NPPD has stated that it will work with landowners to minimize impacts to their land whenever possible, but access will need to be granted to reach the building sites.
“I was at our county commissioner’s meeting again yesterday,” said Ballagh, “and I said, ‘Okay, you’re saying that you don’t have enough access. You’re going to ask the ranchers to give you the right to go wherever they need to across our property to get to your easement. What if the ranchers don’t want to let you?’ Well, if worse comes to worse, then they’ll condemn that too.”
Tom Kent has acknowledged that this is a possibility. “If a land owner absolutely refuses to work with us,” he said, “because it’s a public process that serves the public need, we do have the ability to use the right of eminent domain and go through condemnation proceedings.
“We try our best to avoid that. […] Our history is, in doing these projects – and we’ve done a lot of transmission projects in the last eight or ten years – we have over 98 percent of our easements where we get property rights are done voluntarily. So the amount of condemnations that we have to actually zone projects is very minimal.”
In the meantime, NPPD has begun the process of obtaining signatures from landowners. It will also hold off on construction until the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has completed an environmental impact report on the project. “That process is going in parallel to what we’re doing right now,” said Kent. The report is estimated for release by the end of 2016.