We invite all of our readers to carefully read the following lament. We know that the pipeline has divided residents of the High Plains Aquifer, of which the Ogallala is part. Each point of view ought to recognize the origins of the other. Thousands share the expressions that follow. Accordingly, regardless of the eventual outcome of this titanic struggle, the regulators, elected officials, earth scientists, corporate officers and brothers and sisters of organized labor should proceed cautiously as they ponder the heavy responsibility we all share for the future of our treasured water. Moreover, if we are truly concerned about the impact of all agricultural and industrial infrastructure on our water resources, we need to make more of a concerted effort to understand the variety of past, present and potential threats to the quantity and quality of our water resources and strengthen the current anemic and confusing mix of water programs, plans and policies.
On a Saturday morning, June 16, 2012, nature photographer Adrian Olivera and I travelled the scenic country road headed north of Stuart, Neb. Our destination: 30 miles to the Laura and Kurt Meusch Ranch located on the high southern banks of the scenic Niobrara River. I’ve known Laura for several years, and the proposed Keystone XL oil pipeline has stressed her life like no other event ever has. She states emphatically that she will not be able to continue living on the land she holds so dear to her heart if this tar sands oil pipeline is buried across their ranch. The thought is absolutely unbearable to her.
Kurt was off to an auction where he hoped to purchase a used tractor. Laura shared her heart, soul and tears as she gave us a tour across several acres of the Meusch Ranch. The roads were slippery from an early morning rain. I parked my car on a sandy trail road some distance from the ranch house, and we climbed into the backseat of her four-wheel drive pickup truck. Laura insisted my car would never make it on those roads. Her daughter Amanda sat up front, and Laura took the wheel. I felt confident in her vast experience driving across this rugged land.Our first stop was to actually see a western prairie orchid in bloom. We marveled at the delicate flower growing in the wild, natural prairie and thriving without any human touch. This is a threatened species. I love any flowers, but walking through that lush subirrigated meadow sprinkled with various wild flowers was just surreal.
I asked Laura when the pipeline ordeal started, and she answered, “I just knew” when the Nebraska Department of Environmental Quality (NDEQ) map defining the Sandhills was made public, even though a route wasn’t designated yet. “I just knew.” She stood on the sandy hill that was blown bare of grass and any vegetation and said “And they say this isn’t the Sandhills,” referring to the NDEQ map defining the Sandhills. Her intuition that the new route would cross their ranch was verified when they attended the NDEQ meeting on May 9, 2012 where she eagerly searched the maps sprawled on the long, narrow tables in the O’Neill Community Center.
She describes her sleepless nights. She is frequently jolted from sleep with disturbing thoughts. A notebook at her bedside is specifically placed for writing down those thoughts and ideas. Any spare time away from the ranch work is spent researching and communicating with other landowners allied in this fight against a goliath of money and political power.
A map found in “An Atlas of the Sand Hills” shows depth to water at 0–50 feet on much of the new Keystone XL route in Nebraska, and this is obviously apparent on the Meusch Ranch. Laura is very concerned about water contamination and states, “If we don’t have water, we don’t have anything, and the entire ranching operation is lost.” She showed us a lush green prairie meadow where she estimates the route will cross. In this meadow is a gully where water springs forth and is the headwaters of one of the numerous spring-fed creeks on their property. The springs are only about 3 feet below the surface level of the meadow. These spring-fed creeks all flow into the nearby rapidly flowing Niobrara River. How can a spill be contained in this rushing water?
The 36-inch Keystone XL pipe will be buried 7 feet beneath the surface. With groundwater springs 3 feet below the surface of Meusch’s hay meadow, one can well imagine the pipe will be immersed in groundwater.
Clean water for domestic use, as well as for crops and cattle, is a major concern since the Meusch’s entire livelihood is dependent on water. Laura looks at me and fervently says, “Tell them this is absolutely devastating. It just takes a chunk out of you! A leak into our water could destroy our entire livelihood!” Laura, well informed about benzene, feels vulnerable and threatened by contamination of this potent carcinogen into their natural water supplies. She has inquired about benzene analysis. “Ward Laboratories is a major company, and they don’t even do benzene testing!” Because the contents of the tar sands oil concoction is not 100 percent disclosed, rural landowners are left in the predicament of not even knowing what to test their water for as a baseline.
Because the soil is sandy, erosion is a major problem. Laura showed us fenceposts that were hanging freely after rains had washed away the sandy soil surrounding the posts in the barbed-wire fence line crossing the gulley. A flood two years ago completely changed the appearance of the gully, making it wider and deeper and exposing the bare “sugar” sand. With the disruption of the sandy soil and loss of the fragile surface vegetation, Laura can visualize how a 36-inch pipeline could be washed out very easily, similar to a culvert that had been washed out by a flood in 2010. Also worrisome is the loss of productivity from hay meadows and pastures due to the disturbance of the fragile sandy topsoil.
We stood atop a hill and gazed across the incredibly beautiful natural landscape. Laura began expressing her fears about Keystone XL related to their ranch and family. Suddenly her words turned into tears and sobs. That moment in time was in and of itself. It was an extremely solemn moment. I was absolutely struck with her emotions and felt them hit me in my inmost being. This was a spiritual moment for me. I was speechless, looking down at the sparse grass in the sandy soil. I felt Laura’s grief. I felt her desperation. After the spell of silence and stillness came more hugs and tears. Laura and Amanda embraced, family strength and unity so apparent.
Each time I have seen Laura since her nightmare began, we have shared unspoken feelings as we hug. She is strong. I see the same determined look in her daughter’s eyes. They talk fondly of their land, and the stories are all meshed and intertwined with family names. Their ranch and family are truly inseparable.
A year ago Laura and her daughter searched their canyons for just the right stones, selecting distinct colors and sizes as part of centerpieces for Amanda’s wedding, another example of this family’s strong ties to the land.
As we bounced across a rolling meadow, Laura exclaimed, “We call this the whoop-te-doo meadow.” She pointed to the uneven terrain and, smiling, reminisced about earlier years when she gathered her young kids, James and Amanda, along with fishing tackle, onto a single four-wheel ATV and bounced over the natural mounds and depressions of that particular meadow. She chuckled and said, “Probably my fault that James decided to start jumping with his four-wheeler.” Laura proudly describes James and his sport of aerial acrobatics and jumping high in the air with four-wheelers. She pointed to a 12-foot “mountain” of dirt fashioned by James just east of their house where he practiced this daring sport while growing up.
A recent happening that took place near their fishing pond fascinated me. Amanda and her husband witnessed a deer helpless and sinking in quicksand. They lassoed the deer with a rope and pulled the animal safely out. This was so intriguing to me, and I asked to see this area.
Amanda led the way down a steep bank into a canyon where a sparkling, spring-fed creek meandered freely and was partially shadowed by arching trees, a most idyllic setting. Laura described many family fun times taking place in this creek, which has its beginnings in the meadow just above the canyon. The creek grows and gains momentum from collecting water from the plentiful springs as it descends deeper into the canyon. The water is crystal clear, and the sandy creek bottom is washed into artistic rippled patterns. Laura dreams about keeping this particular spot, nature’s playground, protected for family and friends to enjoy.
After our invigorating hike back up and out of the canyon, we followed Laura, climbing steep steps into a deer blind with windows overlooking the canyon. What a view! Laura gets a yearly deer permit, and this is where she sits in wait with rifle in hand. Amanda has plans to join her mother during the upcoming deer-hunting season.
“We’ve worked hard to keep this ranch, a lot of blood, sweat and tears.”
“How can a foreign company just come in and destroy what we’ve worked so hard for?”
“Out of respect for the twins, we want to keep it this way … They worked hard for this ranch.” Affectionately called “the twins,” Kurt’s great uncles previously owned the land. They were very colorful characters and well known in the area. Both were bachelors, commonly seen with cigars propped in the sides of their mouths and always full of stories.
We drove by a hillside showing exposed geological layers. Laura described how her family has discovered a type of crystallized rock in that location. Pieces of this interesting formation are displayed next to the front of her house. She kindly gave Adrian a sample so that he could make an inquiry about it to his professor friend who has an interest in geology.
After a day spent touring the Meusch Ranch, Laura pulled her truck onto the trail road where my car was left that morning. We were in no hurry to leave, enjoying the cool breeze blowing through the windows. We just sat there, gazing across the beautiful landscape and inhaled the fresh air, not feeling any need for conversation; the magnificent view provided all the words we needed. Birds were singing, and the whispers of the prairie wind soothed me. It is a different sound, wind blowing across the prairie grasses, compared to wind blowing through trees. It is a softer sound. Gradually the herd of Angus cattle approached the fence with curious looks and bellered. Laura suggested the cattle might have thought we had cattle “cake” for them.
More hugs as we parted ways, and again those unspoken words were loud and clear. I could see the great turmoil written across Laura’s face, and I sensed her mighty determination. Yes, protecting our water is a major issue, but it is also about protecting Nebraska families deeply rooted in this water-rich land. Laura’s support comes from neighbors allied against this foreign incursion. The true caretakers of the land are those who depend on it for the very survival of their way of life. It is incomprehensible to me how leaders in Lincoln, so disconnected from Laura’s life and the life of rural Nebraska in general, could so callously promote Keystone XL while the hearts of rural Nebraskans are being pierced with a long toxic black dagger. A decision that allows the taking of land may be insignificant to politicians far removed from the Meusch Ranch, but to the Laura and Kurt Meusch family, this may very well be the most significant battle of their lives.