We almost don’t make it to the put-in site in time to join the flotilla against the Bakken pipeline on the Des Moines River. Leaving Ames shortly after 10 a.m. on Saturday, June 25, for Norton’s Ford northeast of Pilot Mound in Boone County, we’re stopped at an intersection in Ogden, waiting for the road to clear as the town’s annual Fun Days parade crosses through. The procession includes a truck advertising the re-election bid of county Supervisor Tom Foster that hauls a trailer bearing the campaign sign of Keith Puntenney, an attorney running for state Senate whose land sits in the path of the pipeline’s proposed route. Both candidates are staunch opponents of the project.

Eventually, the path ahead clears and we’re on our way again. I’m riding with Lee Tesdell, a 65-year-old English professor at Minnesota State University, Mankato, who lives in Slater. After some additional navigational hiccups, we meet up with Lee’s brother and are en route to Norton’s Ford. As we near the site, a gust of wind hits Lee’s pickup. His canoe, which he skillfully crafted from clear redwood in 1974 while living in Fresno, California, using building plans from the Minnesota Canoe Association, slides from the top of the vehicle and dangles over the driver’s side, denting the back of the truck’s shell in the process. We stop to remount it and get back on the road as a Channel 13 news van zips by in the opposite direction.

Finally, we reach our destination, thirty minutes late at 12:30 p.m. and missing a press conference that was scheduled an hour and a half earlier. But there’s still time to join the flotilla. We’re among the last of 40 boats — canoes, kayaks, and one motorboat — to enter the water. With about 80 people on the river, ranging in age from young children to older adults, it’s an impressive turnout.

Iowa Department of Natural Resources
Iowa Department of Natural Resources

The event is part of the Bakken Pipeline Resistance Coalition’s Summer of Resistance that began May 28 with another flotilla, on the South Skunk River northeast of Oskaloosa. As with that event, today’s flotilla will cross over a section of water under which Dakota Access LLC is seeking to bury the crude oil pipeline that the Iowa Utilities Board recently approved for the subsidiary of Dallas-based Energy Transfer Partners LP and the Houston-based multinational energy giant Phillips 66.

The IUB’s approval was controversial, not only because of the general opposition to the project but because in early June, the board said Dakota Access could begin construction in approved areas despite previous stipulations that the company receive all necessary federal permits beforehand. That’s key to the flotilla protest, which is demanding that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers deny Dakota Access the final federal permit it needs, for permission to bury the pipeline under waterways accounting for about 9 miles of its 346-mile route across 18 Iowa counties.

Without the Army Corps permit, the company, in theory, would have to partially reroute the pipeline — which would otherwise transport crude oil for 1,170 miles from the Bakken and Three Forks shales in North Dakota through South Dakota and Iowa to a distribution hub in Patoka, Illinois — outside of the state. But pipeline opponents want to achieve more than that, says Angie Carter, 37, an event organizer from Davenport representing the resistance coalition member organization Women, Food and Agriculture Network: “Our goal is to shut this whole thing down, not just move it out of Iowa.” (The Army Corps has yet to grant permits for the pipeline in any of the four states, according to Wally Taylor, an attorney who chairs the Iowa chapter of the Sierra Club.)

After signing waivers organizers require from us because we’ve brought our own boat, Lee, his brother, and I move the canoe to the water’s edge and put on life jackets (organizers have rented boats and life jackets from Iowa State University for protesters without their own). A spare life jacket serves as the makeshift seat for the middle of the boat, where I sit and take notes as an outside observer while Lee and his brother begin paddling downstream. The first stop on the 4.4-mile route to our destination at North Fraser ramp is next to a river island, where boaters who arrived before us wait so that we can all cross over the pipeline’s would-be path together for greater visual effect. As we approach the island, a deer swims in the distance. It reaches the island, then darts across a shallow part of the river to the east bank.

We reach the island on the side nearest the opposite bank and pause briefly afloat the calm water with about 35 other boats, awaiting the arrival of the handful behind us. Then we’re off again, to travel under the County Highway E18 bridge, just north of which the pipeline would cross under the river, according to event organizers.

“I think it’s really immoral to be investing in regressive types of petroleum-based technology when we have renewable fuels that we know work.”

“There’s a lot of topsoil in the water today,” Lee observes, paddling as I continue to jot notes and try to snap decent photos with my Android as the sunlight obscures what’s visible on the screen.

“There is every day,” his brother replies.

A contributing factor is the influence of Big Ag and the resulting, mostly voluntary water quality measures that allow significant amounts of cropland and livestock runoff to enter the state’s waters unregulated. The segment of the Des Moines River that we are traversing is better off than some but still one of nearly 600 bodies of water currently identified by the Iowa Department of Natural Resources as having bacteria or nutrient levels that exceed U.S. Environmental Protection Agency standards. The DNR’s most recent biennial report, finalized last year, concluded that the stretch of the river we’re on is suitable for aquatic life and fish consumption (we pass several trotlines protruding from the west riverbank) but not primary contact recreation — activities such as wading and swimming — due to elevated levels of E. coli.

To environmental advocates, the Bakken pipeline represents a potentially devastating threat, in the event of a leak, to Iowa’s already badly polluted waters. “The proposed route would closely track the Des Moines River watershed across the length of the state, one of the biggest rivers in Iowa that hundreds of thousands of Iowans depend on for clean drinking water,” reads a pipeline fact sheet published by Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement, one of the pipeline resistance coalition’s primary member organizations. “If this pipeline is built, it could seriously harm Iowa’s already impaired water quality, threaten the property rights of thousands of everyday Iowans and rural Iowans, and contribute to the catastrophic climate change.”

Later in the day, as we drive back to Ames, I ask Lee why he decided to join the flotilla. “I’m opposed to the pipeline for two major reasons,” he tells me. “One is practical and one is moral.

Protesters join the flotilla at the Norton's Ford put-in site. Photo: Gavin Aronsen/Iowa Informer
Protesters join the flotilla at the Norton’s Ford put-in site. Photo: Gavin Aronsen/Iowa Informer

“On the practical side,” he explains, “I don’t think that the pipeline builders can really build it in such a way that it won’t damage drainage tile and won’t endanger our water and things like that. I don’t think it’s physically possible to make it 100 percent safe.” (Dakota Access maintains that the project is environmentally sound and will end up creating as many as 4,000 temporary construction jobs in Iowa, a major selling point for pipeline-supporting unions and the Midwest Alliance for Infrastructure Now, a labor, agriculture, and business coalition group.)

The other reason Lee opposes the pipeline is a matter of morals. “I think it’s really immoral to be investing in regressive types of petroleum-based technology when we have renewable fuels that we know work,” he says. He’s also concerned about how the crude is extracted from the shales: “The fracking process seems to me to be immoral because of the way the oil is obtained from underground, hurting water systems and harming the natural and human environment where it comes from.”

Hydraulic fracturing — fracking for short — is a method of oil and natural gas extraction in which a well is drilled into the earth and pumped full of fracking fluid, a mixture of water, sand, and chemicals that are largely shielded from disclosure in North Dakota under trade secret exemptions. The pressurized fluid fractures the rock layer deep below the surface, creating fissures that the sand particles wedge open, allowing the oil or gas to seep through and flow to the top of the well.

The potential health and environmental impacts of fracking have been hotly contested, both nationally and in the northeastern Iowa counties of Allamakee, Winneshiek, and Clayton, where the silica sand used in fracking fluid can be mined. Last month, around the same time that the EPA banned the disposal of fracking wastewater at public sewage plants (PDF), a committee of environmental and public health experts called on the agency to clarify a report it released in 2015 concluding that fracking had no “widespread” or “systemic” effects on drinking water. A week later, a federal judge struck down fracking regulations implemented by the Obama administration, ruling that the U.S. Bureau of Land Management didn’t have the authority to oversee fracking on federal and tribal lands and effectively leaving regulation up to individual states.

Lee Tesdell, after navigating his canoe past the County Highway E18 bridge. Photo: Gavin Aronsen/Iowa Informer
Lee Tesdell, after navigating his canoe past the County Highway E18 bridge. Photo: Gavin Aronsen/Iowa Informer

As our canoe approaches County Highway E18, about a mile and a half south of the put-in site, we spot a dozen or so protesters and reporters standing on the bridge. Signs reading “STOP THE BAKKEN PIPELINE” hang over the edge, and the protesters began exchanging chants with the flotilla below. Lee joins in. “Listen to the people talking!” he exclaims in unison with other boaters. Demonstrators on the bridge shout back, “We don’t want no dirty Bakken!”

Suddenly, a drone appears from over the bridge and flies in a loop above the flotilla, documenting the scene. It’s being controlled from the west riverbank by a supporter of the cause. As we continue our journey downstream, over the would-be path of the pipeline and then under the highway bridge, the drone continues to hover overhead. At one point, it isn’t too far from our canoe.

“If it gets close, I’m going to swat it,” says Lee’s brother, waving his paddle above his head in jest.

“We’re not being very cooperative with them. We’re still hoping we’ll win in court.”

Seconds later, the drone crashes into a cottonwood tree and falls to the riverbank, just shy of the water. Sarah Pray, a 36-year-old kayaker and pipeline foe from Norwalk, paddles over and picks it up, causing its propellers to whir back into motion. “Now what?” she yells out, holding the buzzing machine away from her body. Eventually, the drone shuts down, and its operator emerges from the woods above the bank to retrieve it.

The rest of the flotilla’s journey is relatively uneventful. Light intermittent rain cuts through the humidity. Out in the woods not far from the east riverbank, a kingfisher chatters.

Then we reach our destination, disembarking at the North Fraser ramp, where several protesters wade in the river, smoke cigarettes and drink beer — or fill up their water bottles at a cooler — and talk politics. (They’re no fans of Gov. Terry Branstad, who has generally appeared supportive of the pipeline despite his proclaimed neutrality.) Some are waiting for shuttles to take them to a community center in Pilot Mound, where food and further discussion have been scheduled with the assistance of Leda Burton, the town’s anti-pipeline mayor, as a conclusion to the day’s events.

Lee drives away in his truck, giving his brother a ride back to the put-in site where he parked his vehicle. As I await Lee’s return, keeping watch over his canoe, I chat with some of the protesters. One of them’s Dick Lamb, a 73-year-old canoer who, with his wife Judy, owns farmland in Boone County just west of Ames that Dakota Access is trying to bury its pipeline across using the power of eminent domain. Lamb lives in Iowa City but grows corn and soybeans on the farm, which has been in the family since it was purchased by his grandfather in the 1870s. He’s encouraged by the turnout for the flotilla. “We’re seeing that the public is finally waking up to this,” he tells me. “It took a long time.”

Dakota Access has reached voluntary easement agreements with landowners for roughly 90 percent of the parcels along the pipeline’s proposed route, but there are still holdouts, including Lamb. “The farm owners, I think, have been under a lot of stress over this,” he says. The way he tells it, it’s not hard to imagine why: Family members don’t always agree on whether or not it’s worth fighting Dakota Access and conflicting advice from lawyers hasn’t helped, nor has the sustained pressure from the company to sign agreements in exchange for ever-changing offers of monetary compensation ostensibly meant to mitigate the impact that the pipeline’s construction would have on their land.

The end of the route at the North Fraser ramp. Photo: Gavin Aronsen/Iowa Informer
The end of the route at the North Fraser ramp. Photo: Gavin Aronsen/Iowa Informer

Last summer, Lamb joined two other landowners to sue the IUB in an attempt to prevent Dakota Access from using eminent domain to secure easements on their properties. They argued that, because of a state law passed in 2006, the board couldn’t allow the condemnation of agricultural land for a private corporation if its project wouldn’t provide any public benefit to the state. The lawsuit was tossed out three months later, when a judge ruled that the IUB would have to consider the argument before the courts did, but that hasn’t deterred Lamb.

After Dakota Access received the IUB’s blessing, Lamb filed suit against the board again. Several other landowners who were involved in previous court battles against the pipeline also filed lawsuits against the board, including Pilot Mound resident LaVerne Johnson and Keith Puntenney, the attorney and state Senate candidate, who owns land in Boone and Webster counties (and is running against Ted Cruz-endorsing incumbent Jerry Behn). In June, the lawsuits were consolidated into one.

In the meantime, the landowners along the pipeline’s route who continue to resist offers from Dakota Access to voluntarily settle will have to take their case to a hearing in front of their local county compensation board, which will attempt to determine a fair monetary compensation from the company in exchange for condemning their land for an easement. Landowners will be able to appeal the board’s decision to district court if they don’t believe the amount awarded is fair, but Dakota Access will be allowed to begin construction regardless two weeks after cutting a check for the amount determined by the compensation board, barring other legal setbacks. Lamb’s hearing is set for later this month.

“We’re not being very cooperative with them,” Lamb tells me. “We’re still hoping we’ll win in court.” He pauses briefly, then adds, “We’re hoping for a lot of things.”

Outside the community center in Pilot Mound. Photo: Gavin Aronsen/Iowa Informer
Outside the community center in Pilot Mound. Photo: Gavin Aronsen/Iowa Informer

Before long, Lee returns in his truck. We mount the canoe back on its roof and depart for Pilot Mound, a town with a population of 175. When we arrive at the community center, after another brief pit stop along the way to re-secure the canoe, there are about 100 pipeline foes from around the state inside.

As people begin eating their meals — a choice of hamburger or veggie burger, plus sides including fresh fruit, baked beans, and mac and cheese — Keith Puntenney and Tom Foster, the Boone County supervisor, who missed joining the flotilla because they were campaigning at the Ogden Fun Days parade, stand up to address the room.

Aided by Foster’s persistence, the Boone County Board of Supervisors has been one of the only across Iowa’s 99 counties to take a stand against the pipeline, voting unanimously last October to urge the IUB to deny Dakota Access a construction permit over eminent domain concerns and the potential environmental and economic impacts of a leak.

In February, Foster met with other pipeline opponents in the Boone High School auditorium, where they discussed the possibility of upping the ante with a community bill of rights ordinance — a local challenge to state and federal regulations on the basis that citizens’ rights ought to take precedence over those of corporations. At the beginning of June, the supervisors appeared willing to consider holding hearings on a county-level ordinance opposing the pipeline. But at their June 22 meeting, on the advice of County Attorney Dan Kolacia, who warned that trying to regulate the pipeline locally would likely lead to a costly lawsuit, the board’s other two members voted against the idea. (Last year, Dakota Access sued the Calhoun County Board of Supervisors when it passed an ordinance intended to protect drainage districts, prompting the board to resolve the lawsuit by changing the rule so that it was more consistent with those of the state’s other counties.)

One of several times we stop to re-mount Lee's canoe. Photo: Gavin Aronsen/Iowa Informer
One of several times we stop to re-mount Lee’s canoe. Photo: Gavin Aronsen/Iowa Informer

“When I went home Wednesday [after the board meeting], I was low,” Foster says, ”but I’m here today.” The audience cheers. But the following week, the Boone County Board of Supervisors will give an indication that it may not do much else to oppose the pipeline when Ames resident Carolyn Raffensperger, director of the resistance coalition member organization Science & Environmental Health Network, will propose that the board avoid signing a permit allowing Dakota Access to construct the pipeline across county drainage tiles until the Army Corps makes a decision on the federal waterways permit. Although the board will delay the motion until its next meeting in order to review the accuracy of tile maps, Supervisor Chet Hollingshead will echo the county attorney’s concerns about the potential legal liability of resisting Dakota Access, telling Raffensperger to “find another choir to preach to.”

Puntenney, a high school classmate of Foster’s who says that he “couldn’t be prouder” of the politician’s first two terms as county supervisor, is a founder of the Private Property Rights Coalition, which has been raising funds to fight Dakota Access and the IUB in court. He tells the audience gathered at the Pilot Mound community center that he has three points to make.

First, Puntenney says, he hopes to see the legal challenge against the company’s use of eminent domain wind up in the Iowa Supreme Court, but that’s going to require the help of donations from opponents of the pipeline. “This is going to be a very, very expensive lawsuit,” he says. “We’re intending to take it as far as we can.”

Second, Puntenney stresses the importance of supporting candidates for local and state office, like himself and Foster, who are willing to take a stand against the pipeline and other controversial proposals such as new hog confinements that would further taint Iowa’s water quality.

“The third thing I want to tell you is, like Tom said, we were all really discouraged when the vote didn’t get through the supervisors like we thought it might,” Puntenney adds, “but sometimes one door shuts and another one opens … so keep the faith.”

Now that the IUB has greenlighted the Bakken pipeline’s construction, even those doors appear to be quickly closing, and it seems to many that it would be a Herculean task to stop the pipeline now. But similar projects, in New England and the South, were halted earlier this year, last November President Obama rejected TransCanada’s Keystone XL oil pipeline over concerns about climate change, and some activists at the community center seem willing to do whatever it takes — including face arrest — to see the Dakota Access project suffer a similar fate.

After Puntenney has finished speaking and Taylor Brorby, an Ames-based writer, begins reading from Fracture, an anthology of essays and poetry about the consequences of fracking that he co-edited, I step outside to speak to an activist who wants to physically block the pipeline’s path of construction.

“I consider myself an advocate for human beings, because everybody seems to lose that fact when we talk about landowners’ rights and all that kind of stuff.”

Her name is Donielle Wanatee, a 40-year-old member of the Meskwaki Nation who lives in Tama, three counties to the east of Boone County. Although Tama County is outside the pipeline’s path, Wanatee has actively opposed the pipeline since it first made news two years ago. “The fact of the matter is, we depend on the water supply from outside of our boundaries,” says Wanatee, who is a member of her tribe’s Thunder clan. To her, the threat of that supply being contaminated by an oil leak is existential: “We should be considered an endangered species, because there aren’t that many of us left. The French had to wipe us out back during the [18th-century Fox Wars].”

And the pipeline does affect other tribal people along the pipeline’s proposed route, both in the Dakotas and in Iowa’s northwest Lyon County, where construction approval from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service was temporarily revoked in late May after the reported discovery of Sioux burial grounds in the vicinity of the Blood Run site on the Iowa-South Dakota border. Construction was reapproved following a state archaeological review, when Dakota Access agreed to use boring equipment to bury the pipeline 85 feet directly under the sacred site (citing a 2004 archaeological review, the company has also disputed whether there is anything of archaeological significance at the site).

“Is there nothing sacred left?” Wanatee asks. The thought hits her especially close to home today because she had to skip the morning press conference after receiving a call on her way there with her father, Donald Wanatee Sr., that his cousin had just died. Wanatee Sr. has played a central role in protecting and reestablishing tribal burial sites under a 1976 state law and the federal Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act of 1990.

Now, his daughter is fighting to prevent Dakota Access from disrupting tribal lands, drawing inspiration from resistance efforts in the Dakotas. Before speaking with me, Wanatee addressed the community center audience, pitching her idea to establish a spirit camp that obstructs the pipeline’s construction route in Iowa, similar to the Sacred Rock camp that members of the Rosebud Sioux tribe have erected along its route, by a tributary of the Missouri River near the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation community of Cannon Ball, North Dakota. In early April, tribal citizens took part in a horseback spirit ride from the reservation to the camp and, by coincidence, today they canoed from the camp to Fort Yates, another community on the reservation, in another act of protest against the pipeline.

Wanatee has already allied herself with tribal opposition members in the Dakotas. In April, three weeks after the spirit ride, she joined Lakota youth Bobbi Jean Three Legs and 15 others on a 500-mile spiritual relay run against the pipeline from the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation in Cannon Ball, North Dakota, to an Army Corps district office in Omaha.

“We sacrifice our bodies for this stuff,” Wanatee tells me. “It’s that important, where we’re willing to put our lives on the line and stand our ground, because this has no benefits for our people. I think it’s time we are allied together to stop this.” She later adds, “I consider myself an advocate for human beings, because everybody seems to lose that fact when we talk about landowners’ rights and all that kind of stuff.”

As Wanatee and other activists anxiously await the next developments relating to their fight against the Bakken pipeline, coalition members are working on plans to continue their Summer of Resistance. They may include a third flotilla protest, on the Mississippi River in southeastern Lee County, perhaps, it is suggested at the community center, in coordination with the environmental advocacy group River Action.

However things shake out, it’s abundantly clear that opposition remains strong in Iowa and beyond, despite that construction is now underway in all four states the pipeline would cross; and that activists intend to do all they can to demand that state and federal regulators and politicians, and Dakota Access itself, listen to the people talking.

Gavin Aronsen
Gavin Aronsen is an editor and reporter for and founding member of the Iowa Informer. He previously worked as a city reporter for the Ames Tribune, research assistant to investigative journalist Wayne Barrett at the Village Voice, and in various roles at Mother Jones, where his work contributed to a National Magazine Award nomination for the magazine's digital media coverage of the Occupy Wall Street movement. Email: garonsen [at] iowainformer [dot] com.