Mapping DAPL

An anonymous group of designers wants people to know everything being shoved aside for the Dakota Access Pipeline.

By Zach Mortice

Indigenous lands along the pipeline route in North Dakota and South Dakota. Map by Alma and Friends.

The recently completed Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) will run for 1,172 miles from northwest North Dakota to downstate Illinois, pumping 450,000 barrels of oil per day and costing $3.8 billion to build. Those are superlative numbers that can blot out the complexity and vulnerability of the landscapes and watersheds the pipeline traverses. Making these facets of the DAPL clear is the goal of maps created by an anonymous group of designers calling themselves Alma and Friends. Their work has been collected and packaged by the Los Angeles public television station KCET with a series of articles on the ecological consequences of the pipeline.

These maps detail regional watersheds, individual bodies of water, indigenous lands, the blotches of human settlement that dot this stretch of the Great Plains and midwestern prairie, and past and potential oil spills. Collected into a series of seven interactive maps by KCET, these diagrams demonstrate the various layers of ecological and cultural damage made possible by construction of the DAPL.

The DAPL crosses two watershed systems. Map by Alma and Friends.

The initiator of Alma and Friends, a landscape architect working in Los Angeles, says her involvement started with a “visceral” reaction to the election of President Trump. (Alma and Friends members requested anonymity given the controversial nature of the pipeline and the overall divisive political atmosphere.) Interested in the water infrastructure threatened by the DAPL, she wanted to use landscape architects’ mapping to communicate the ecological and cultural impact of routing corporate fossil fuel infrastructure through Native American reservations and private land. So Alma and Friends built these maps with GIS data, entirely pro bono, spending more than 200 hours on them after work hours.

The area around the DAPL route could generate 100 times more energy than oil per year with solar panels. Map by Alma and Friends.

Beyond simply detailing the environmental cost to develop this fossil fuel source, Alma and Friends’s maps put potential renewable energy resources, like wind and solar, in the geographic context of the pipeline. Diagrams of wind and solar potential for the area show places that could generate more power, employ more people, and create none of the carbon emissions that oil does. The area is particularly well suited to wind power. (The renewable energy company AWS Truepower donated $30,000 worth of wind energy GIS data to the project.) According to KCET, covering the Bakken shale oil formation in photovoltaic panels could generate 100 times more energy than oil per year from the pipeline. (Though no one intends to blanket such a large area with solar panels, because of the potential for ecological disruption.) It doesn’t matter how much oil is buried underground. There’s already a bonanza of renewable energy available for the taking. “There are so many more opportunities out there,” says Alma and Friends’s leader.

The Great Plains, where the pipeline is located, is particularly well suited to wind power. Map by Alma and Friends.

The maps include past oil pipeline spills as well as sites that are particularly vulnerable to spills in the future, located at pipelines’ intersections with major pieces of water infrastructure. The pipeline’s route crosses nine major rivers or streams. From May 2016 to May 2017, for example, there were 745 oil spills in North Dakota alone. And the DAPL, which hasn’t even begun full operation yet, has already sprung multiple leaks. All told, 17 million people get their drinking water from the areas affected by the pipeline, including the Missouri and Mississippi River watersheds, the largest in the nation. Seeing the vast reach of the pipeline and the even greater reach of the watersheds it crosses was the most surprising element of the mapping effort, says the Alma and Friends leader. She was shocked by “how far the reach of these disasters could go.”

Past and potential oil spills along oil pipeline routes. Map by Alma and Friends.

Often, the land the DAPL runs through is portrayed as an empty place, devoid of dense settlement and iconic natural landscapes. There are fields of grain, livestock grazing, and Native American lands—the site of violent clashes between protestors and police. And this description is partially true. (Full disclosure: The pipeline runs through my dad’s own corn and soybean fields, in Story County, Iowa. He’s currently suing Dakota Access.) But these maps make it clear that there is much more going on. The pipeline skirts the edges of small and medium-sized cities such as Des Moines, Iowa, and St. Louis, and careens through two major watersheds and 200 bodies of water. It’s a relatively sparsely populated part of the country, true, but the amount of possible disruption illustrated by Alma and Friends maps makes a wider point: If all this is put at risk by placing a pipeline under many hundreds of miles of cropland, then there is likely no good place for such a thing.

Zach Mortice is a Chicago-based architecture and landscape architecture journalist. You can follow him on Twitter and Instagram. 

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