Montana State University

Mountains and Minds

Jim Bauder Definitely Digs His Work November 27, 2007 by Carol Flaherty • Published 11/27/07

From digging underground hideouts as a kid in upstate New York to studying soil cores from eastern Montana, Jim Bauder's chosen work has been about soil and its complex relationship with air and water.

In this 2005 photo, Jim Bauder sticks his arm down into a crack in the soil in an ephemeral stream channel in northeastern Wyoming that had received coalbed methane water discharge. Photo courtesy of Jim Bauder.
In this 2005 photo, Jim Bauder sticks his arm down into a crack in the soil in an ephemeral stream channel in northeastern Wyoming that had received coalbed methane water discharge. Photo courtesy of Jim Bauder.

For nearly 30 years, Bauder has been MSU's Extension soil scientist, a job that for most of that time was not embroiled in controversy. He helped farmers and ranchers keep their soils healthy and productive. He collected baseline data on soils and water. He crisscrossed the state providing information.

But in the early 1990s, his research was pulled into the debate about coalbed methane development.

The issue has huge economic, ecological and political implications. The U.S. Geological Survey estimated in 2002 that Montana and Wyoming's Powder River Basin has more than 14 trillion cubic feet of recoverable methane tucked in its coalbeds. Although methane drilling supplies only about 7 percent of the United States' natural gas, that still translates to a multi-billion dollar potential.

When Bauder's research data pointed to soil quality changes due to salts in irrigation water, it put him in the middle of the controversy, because coalbed methane mining can add mineral salts to drainage areas and river systems. On a memorable day in Billings, while being interviewed on National Public Radio, one caller branded him a terrorist, implying that Bauder's stance thwarted domestic energy development.

"Audiences have specific places they would like to see the science fit," Bauder said. "Science doesn't always work that way."

As Bauder describes it, science reveals a continuum that goes "from the atmosphere, into the soil, and through the soil into the streams and groundwater."

That's why he is identified as closely with Montana water quality as he is with soil management. As one of the nation's leading experts on coalbed methane mining water's effects on soil, his data has helped inform the debate.

"Jim is a really remarkable scientist," said Art Compton, administrator of the Montana Department of Environmental Quality. "I say that because he, as much as any person working in the field, is determined to shine the light of good science on what is very often a polarizing and very controversial area." Compton added that Bauder's work "has very much illuminated how to best protect agricultural uses," but that Bauder also works with landowners who see coalbed methane development as inevitable and an opportunity.

Glenn Gay is one of those landowners. A rancher near Broadus, Gay began working with Bauder in the 1990s on Powder River irrigation water issues. Now, as he contemplates the likelihood of coalbed methane development on his own ranch, years of working with Bauder are paying off.

"With Jim's help and knowledge, I think CBM and ranching are very compatible," Gay wrote in an e-mail. "There will be problems between the two, but if I can go into development with scientific insight, these problems can be dealt with."

A complex relationship

(Photo: Kelly Gorham)

Science shows a healthy soil as one in which organic debris, bacteria, fungi and insects mingle with geologically derived minerals, air spaces and pockets of water. Bauder's favorite description of healthy soil likens it to wadded-up paper. Wad up pieces of paper and throw them into a heap. Dribble water onto the heap, and some will trickle through and some will pool in the complex shapes created by the wad. This rich combination of living organisms, complex shapes and minerals provides the aggregate from which crops and native plants draw sustenance.

Water from a coalbed methane drilling operations can change the soil, turning it into something more akin to a stack of paper that sheds water.

As Bauder explains it, coalbed methane is trapped in water-saturated coal seams. The water is rich in minerals. It's not as salty as an ocean, but it's salty enough that when the water is discharged onto the ground or into nearby streams, it adds to the overall saltiness of both. The sodium within the salt breaks down the soil's complex structure, and the soil forms a crust strong enough to break plant stems, inhibit plant germination and emergence, and slow further water infiltration.

Over the years, as excess water from methane production became more of an issue, Bauder and his students and coworkers tested ideas about what landowners and methane companies could do to turn the water into something useful for land owners, mineral owners, communities and water rights holders downstream.

Three years after MSU's Plant Growth Center opened in 1987, Bauder and his students were hauling soil columns there from eastern Montana to set up experiments. His team worked to determine how much and what kind of salts in water and soil are compatible with keeping the complex systems functioning long-term. Under controlled conditions, his team developed data on how plant species tolerate and adapt to salinity. That information provided the rationale for salinity water standards. The team was the first to look closely at alfalfa seedling sensitivity to salinity as it related to the plant's survival. They also experimented with ways to get the salt out of the water so the water from coalbed methane could help, rather than hinder, downstream users.

"The coalbed methane research has been the burr under my saddle," Bauder says. "I could have done other research that might have been more profound in the scientific community, but this was the work that needed to be done, because there is a new audience to educate."

And what does Bauder do when he's not working?

"My wife and I love scuba diving. I love to be totally immersed in water!" he says.