At the namesake of Sioux Falls, the mighty falls seem to have fallen. Water that was once a full-blown tap is down now to a trickle. The tourists still come; many of them have no idea of the power of the Big Sioux. That's all been washed away by a summer of drought across Eastern KELOLAND.
“It takes a lot of recreation away that people like to do in the summertime when the flows are so down,” outdoor enthusiast Pete Sanchez said.
Sanchez usually spends his summers along the Big Sioux boating, kayaking and swimming with his family and friends. What's normally a once-a-week ritual stopped short this year. By July 4, the water levels had become too low, sinking to levels that hardly keep kayaks moving.
“We had to portage the kayaks,” Sanchez said. “There were a lot of sand bars. The kids were out of the boats 80 percent of the time.”
A year ago, Sanchez had free reign over the river except for one instance north of Sioux Falls. He was kayaking through a low-head dam – a mistake he only made once.
“The current pulled me down so fast I couldn't even take my first breath. So when I came back I was circulating that hydraulic. It popped me back out and up. It took me right back down again,” he said shortly after the incident in July 2011.
Water barely flows over the dam now. It's hard to believe one feature can be so dangerous to boaters, especially an experienced one. But it was a moment Sanchez says changed his entire view of the river and the hazards it holds.
“I thought I was going to die,” Sanchez said.
At high-river levels, low-head dams look harmless, even exciting. It's a drop-off of just a few feet. When the river goes down, you see just how far the drop really is. It's why low-head dams have been given the nickname “killing machine.” The dams create a cyclical current nearly impossible to escape.
Currents at the falls were high in 2011 too. Water surged over stones, swallowed tourists’ perches and provided a perfect picture for those hoping to get a glance at the Big Sioux.
Now that's a memory only preserved by KELOLAND archive footage. As those who come here see a much more subdued river, and those who spend their time on the river go elsewhere.
“We find something else to do. It was just more hassle and not as much fun as we would normally have on the water last year,” Sanchez said.
Sanchez says it slows down activity here. And as we head into fall it's all but stopped the recreation he normally sees along the Big Sioux. Like everyone else, he is looking for some help from Mother Nature to make it rise.