Sunday Box Score:
Objective Look At Engineers’ Flood Role,
But Yet Another Anti-Pipeline Story

As I see it, my favorite newspaper batted .500 last Sunday in its handling of the two stories which have dominated the regional news this year—(1) the Missouri River flood and the way the Army Engineers responded and (2) the Keystone XL Pipeline which would cut a narrow path across the eastern portion of Nebraska’s Sand Hills primarily above the Ogallala aquifer.

The flood/Army Engineers story was comprehensive and objective.  The Keystone Pipeline story—like the great majority of those which have preceded it in news media coverage—emphasized the opposition side of the pipeline issue—more about this later in today’s column).

The thrust of the Missouri River/Army Engineers coverage was accurately reflected in the headline:  “There was no way to stop it.”

And in this subhead:  “Numbers show there was nothing the river’s managers could have done to avert the worst of the flooding.”

Some highlights of World-Herald staff writer David Hendee’s long, comprehensive analytical report:

“Looking back, there were no good choices, and all would have ended in massive flooding…

“Faced with rain and runoff unmatched in recorded history, the Army Corps of Engineers opened its big dams on the Missouri River and unleashed an unprecedented flood on cities and farms along nearly 1,400 miles of the nation’s longest river.

“There was nothing the river’s Omaha-based managers could have done to avert the worst of this summer’s flooding.”

Advance Warning Would Have Been Little Help

Hendee’s research led to the conclusion that even if Corps engineers had somehow known months in advance about the coming unprecedented deluge and drained the reservoirs behind the Corps’ six big Missouri River dams, “the end would have been much the same.”

Hendee’s thorough, careful research produced this fundamental fact:  “The Corps’ six-dam system in Montana and the Dakotas is designed to accommodate 40 million acre-feet of rainfall and runoff from March through July.  This year’s total exceeded that capacity by 20 percent.  It was the largest runoff in Missouri River records that date to 1881.”

From a non-Corps of Engineers, source Dennis Todey, a state climatologist based at South Dakota State University, came this analysis:

“…you can’t account for every extreme circumstance.  The fairly wet winter could have been managed.  The widespread, heavy rainfall in Montana put it over the top.”

People with strong emotion-based feelings—which was certainly the tone of criticism of the Army Engineers—rarely are responsive to the facts.  But the facts seem clear:  The Engineers did the very best they could under the unpredictable pressure of the largest flow of Missouri River water ever recorded.

* * *

Time After Time, News Media Coverage
Stresses Opposition To Keystone Pipeline

As to the Sunday story dealing with the Keystone Pipeline issue:

Once again, news media coverage is strongly or exclusively in favor of the opposition, in this case, the opposition is represented by a University of Nebraska-Lincoln associate professor who is said to have experience and expertise in the handling of hazardous wastes.

But the record clearly suggests that Professor John Stansbury’s supposed contribution to objective analysis of the pipeline’s impact is based on a “worst case” scenario—what could happen if a combination of factors affecting the pipeline all produced “worst case” results.

This is supposed to be objective research worthy of a university professor?

Common sense would tell you that if important decisions both in public and private life were decided on the basis of “worst case” possibilities, bridges would never be built across rivers and tall buildings would never be constructed, for just a couple of examples.  In private life, drivers might stop driving.  After all, if you believe your life is at risk on the basis of “worst case” possibilities, every trip in a motor vehicle could possibly, if not likely, result in a fatal accident.

Okay, an unlikely drivers reaction to “worst case” warnings.  But no more far-fetched than for a university professor to build his supposed analysis of Keystone XL Pipeline prospects on the basis of “worst case” scenarios.

In the Sunday story, State Sen. Ken Haar of Malcolm, a leading pipeline opponent, was quoted as expressing indignation over the fact that the U.S. State Department has ignored Professor Stansbury’s warning.

Haar seemed especially indignant over the fact that the researchers retained by the State Department dismissed Professor Stansbury’s worst-case scenario so-called research in these words:

“This is simply the latest case of opportunistic fear-mongering, dressed up as an academic study.”

The truth hurts, Senator Haar and Professor Stansbury.

Predictably, the Sunday story ignored the directly contradictory pipeline appraisal of another University of Nebraska-Lincoln professor, hydrologist Jim Goeke, described in an October 2 news story as “perhaps the leading expert on the Sand Hills and its water.”

In contrast to several stories quoting Professor Stansbury’s “worst case” so-called research, Professor Goeke’s views have been reported once—on an inside page in a story which began with a sympathetic presentation of the views of an anti-pipeline activist who has been given the nickname “Pipeline Cindy” by acquaintances who are familiar with her fanatic opposition.  I summarized Professor Goeke’s views in these words in a recent column:

“Goeke, described as having sunk hundreds of wells into the Sand Hills during 35 years of research, was quoted as agreeing with the analysis of TransCanada officials that pipeline leaks would have minor, localized impacts because (1) groundwater moves so slowly in the area, and (2) oil and diluting chemicals rise and would be blocked from the groundwater below by layers of sand, silt and clay.”

In that same story, on the same inside page, three-paragraph attention was given to the previously unreported fact that the total Ogallala aquifer under the Sand Hills is not at risk, because the pipeline would cut across the eastern part of the aquifer.  This would mean 75-80% of the aquifer under the Sand Hills could not conceivably be threatened because the aquifer water moves—perhaps two feet a day—from west to east.

I wrote also—and repeat now—that it would obviously be a serious problem if 25% of the Sand Hills and the underlying Ogallala and aquifer were at risk, but there is convincing evidence to the contrary as demonstrated by Professor Jim Goeke’s expert opinion and such precautions as described in the 55th paragraph of the October 2 story reporting that pipe that laid in areas of high water tables will be encased in concrete.

Goeke, who owns land in the Sand Hills, said he has posed every tough question he can think of to officials of TransCanada, which proposes to build the pipeline.  Those officials, Goeke said, “have been as forthcoming and as honest as they come.”

So who to believe, the much-quoted “worst case” Professor Stansbury or Professor Jim Goeke, considered perhaps the leading expert on the Sand Hills and its water?

The Keystone XL Pipeline has been described by another non-emotional expert, Howard Hawks of Omaha, chief executive of Tenaska, as designed to be “the safest pipeline ever built.” That expert opinion was given only one-time prominent news media play.

* * *

Nebraska And Senator Ben Nelson
A Model For Campaign Chicanery?

The New York Times on Sunday revealed the fascinating story behind that barrage of television ads designed to enhance Nebraska’s Ben Nelson’s chances of victory when he seeks election to a third term in the United States Senate in the election still 13 months away.

As I see it, it’s a very questionable use of an apparent loophole in campaign financing law.  The New York Times story said that the Democratic Party is using the Nelson-promoting ads to test whether the party can get away with what seems to me to be clearly violating the spirit if not the letter of campaign financing laws.

The law specifies that the parties can run generalized “issue” ads up to 90 days before an election so long as those ads do not specifically advocate the election of a given candidate.  In the 90 days before an election, the law allows money to be spent with the specific purpose of urging the election of a candidate.

The Times story indicated that what the national and Nebraska Democratic parties are doing in Ben Nelson’s case is a test to see if they can get away with running ads promoting Nelson and his views but not directly asking the TV viewers to vote for Nelson.

The ads are clearly intended to help Ben Nelson win against whatever Republican candidate he faces next November.

From some generalized ads which showed Nelson bragging about his record as governor, the ads turned to targeting, by name, Attorney General Jon Bruning, State Senator Deb Fischer and State Treasurer Don Stenberg, the three leading candidates for the Republican nomination for United States Senator.

Nelson criticizes each of the three Republicans but does not specifically ask for a vote against any of them 13 months from now.

The Times story said that the Nebraska ads, which have cost Democrats more than $600,000 to date, have interested a group formed by former Bush White House aide Carl Rove.  Rove’s American Crossroads organization has asked the Federal Election Commission for a formal ruling on whether it could adopt the Democratic pro-Nelson strategy in coordinating “issue” ads featuring prospective Republican candidates more than 90 days before the election.

I know and like Ben Nelson, but I deplore his involvement in this political chicanery.  His obvious intense desire for a third term is not a good enough excuse.

Why Ben Nelson ever agreed to go along is perhaps an indication of how badly he wants that third term.

* * *

Two Dogs Are Now In Charge
Of Jackie And Don Wrieth Household

My assistant, Jackie Wrieth, with whom I have had the great good fortune to work these past 26 years, quite unintentionally supplied  me with this week’s upbeat column ending.

She did so by adopting a second dog from Hearts United for Animals—a no-kill animal sanctuary in Auburn, Nebraska.  “Alex” is a young energetic Shih Tzu mix bringing with him no known background other than being rescued from the Joplin, Missouri area.

Sophie, Jackie’s other HUA puppy-mill-rescue dog, adopted a year ago, isn’t too sure she wants to share her new comfortable lifestyle with this feisty pup.

I’m very pleased for Jackie and the new co-chairman of the Don and Jackie Wrieth household.

And my thanks to Jackie and her new dog for providing a definitely upbeat ending for this week’s column.

Meet AlexMeet Alex

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