SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (KELO) — Like a flowing stream, the quality of South Dakota’s surface water is going downhill.

Most of the state’s rivers, streams and lakes are considered impaired. A state Department of Environment and Natural Resources official says 78% of its rivers and streams are impaired and 91% of its lakes are impaired based on the bodies of water tested in the latest DENR report. Those are rivers, streams and lakes the public fishes, swims, boats and uses in other ways throughout the year.

Impaired waters means a water body has levels of certain contaminants above specified standards.

“A water body is considered impaired if its water quality does not meet the standard for one of its designated beneficial uses,” said Brian Walsh, scientist manager with the South Dakota DENR.

Uses could be swimming or fish suitable for eating. Too high of mercury levels can mean a certain level of fish consumption can be unsafe. Nitrate levels contribute to algae. E coli bacteria can make a lake unsuitable for swimming.

People still use impaired waters but there are times, for example, when it may not be safe to swim or eat too many fish.

Impairment is the reason why Lake Alvin has been closed to swimming at least once this summer. And why algae has been seen in Wall Lake recently.

“..most of the river and stream impairments in South Dakota are caused by E.coli bacteria impacting recreational use or total suspended solids violations impacting the fishery use,” Walsh said. “Most lake impairments are caused by elevated levels of mercury in fish tissue and algae blooms, which impact the fishery and recreation uses.”

But water contaminated with high levels of E coli or nitrates or discarded debris is not new in South Dakota.

“We haven’t seen much (improvement) in quality over past several years,” said Travis Entenman, managing director of the Friends of the Big Sioux River.

Groups have been cleaning portions of the Big Sioux River since at least the late 1980s. The DENR releases water quality reports every two years at least since 1998. The state and its partners test a certain number of miles and acres of river, streams and lakes to report on the level of impairment in the state.

Those DENR reports show that water quality in the state has been steadily declining since 1998 in bodies of water tested and monitored. According to the DENR, many of the lakes in the state that receive heavy recreation and public interest are visited, on average, four years out of every 10.

The regular testing is combined with other programs to track and learn about water quality and other topics in the state’s water bodies.

The DENR report from 2004 said that people could swim in many South Dakota streams. “Seventy six percent of stream miles designated for immersion recreation supported swimmable uses, 20% did not meet the swimmable criteria,” the report said. Most streams, 56%, were suitable for all intended uses.

Ten years later in 2014, 35% of assessed stream miles were found to support the assigned beneficial use; 65% did not support one or more beneficial uses, according to the report. “Fifty-four percent of stream miles designated for immersion recreation supported that beneficial use,” the report said.

The quality regression in lakes was similar except for at least one upturn in percentage from 2004 to 2014.

In 2004, 34% of lake acreage assessed from 1993 to 2003 was considered to support all designated uses while 66% did not support all uses.

The 2014 DENR report said 44.2% of the assessed lake acreage was considered to support assigned beneficial uses. But in 2015, estimated 21% of the assessed lake acreage was considered to support all assigned beneficial uses.

By 2016, 78.7% of rivers and streams did not support one or more beneficial uses. By 2018, 15.7% of the lakes supported all uses; 84.3% did not.

And in 2020, 78% of all tested rivers and streams and 91% of all tested lakes are considered impaired.

Ironically, the decline came as organizations and cities began to talk more frequently about water quality.

The DENR chart for water quality reads a bit like a chemical formula for a material. The report refers to total maximum load for specific impairments. It also refers to supported and supported uses a part of a way to show impairment.

“The water body is considered supported if its water quality meets the standards designated for its beneficial use and nonsupporting if it does not,” Walsh said.

Lake Alvin is an example. When E coli in the lake reaches a certain level, the South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks Department will close it to swimming.

The beach will close because of “a high level of bacteria…,” said Jason Baumann, park supervisor with the GFP. The high E coli level means that swimmers have a higher chance for infection than those fishing, he said.

“This year we’ve closed it once for about a week,” Baumann said. “The numbers rebounded quickly so I don’t think we reached a full week (of closure.)”

While E coli levels may close the beach to swimming, the lake is still open to kayaking, canoeing, boating and fishing which are still safe, Baumann said.

The DENR tests the Lake Alvin water quality weekly.

Lake Alvin was closed to swimming several times in 2019 after large rain events caused run-off of pollutants into the lake, Baumann said.

The Big Sioux River is one of the rivers impaired with E coli.

The Big Sioux River near Fawick Park in Sioux Falls.

Testing shows that some areas of the river had very high levels of harmful E coli, according to research by a team from the South Dakota School of Mines released in 2018.

The river was deemed the 13th dirtiest in the nation in 2012.

The Friends of the Big Sioux River is one of the groups that focuses on educating the public about improving and maintaining water quality, particular in the Big Sioux River.

Entenman said while the river has high levels of E coli in different areas and at points throughout the year, members of his group still kayak and canoe on the river.

The coronavirus pandemic has also highlighted that being on the water is a good way to enjoy the outdoors and social distance, Entenman said.

The group also regularly tests water in the river and its tributaries in a complementary partnership with the DENR.

A river is a living thing

Betty Smith said she has a relationship with the Missouri River near her home in Vermillion.

She’s lived in the area for 21 years. When the weather and water temperature is warm enough, Smith will often kayak three or four days a week on the river.

“The river is like a living thing. It changes; it moves,” Smith said.

And while she spends a lot of time on the river, “You can’t know the water’s quality unless you test it,” Smith said.

A new group started in May in the region to test the water of streams and other tributaries in Clay County that drain into the Missouri River or its basin.

“…the river is connected to all these small streams,” Smith said.

If the water quality in a stream is poor that will negatively impact the larger body of water.

What feeds the water quality?

Past discharge violations by Smithfield Foods and the heavy rainfall, which caused the city of Sioux Falls dump 65.3 million gallons of raw and partially treated sewage into the river in 2010 are high profile sources of pollutants in the Big Sioux River.

Studies also show that fertilizer run-off from farm fields and lawns can also pollute water.

The Big Sioux Watershed in a 2016 DENR map.

A river isn’t just the miles of water that extend from start to finish. Lakes aren’t just the number of acres they cover.

Miles of streams and other water sources contribute to a river or lake through watersheds and from daily life in cities and towns in the watershed. What happens on the land, lawns and streets in that watershed impact the lake or river.

The Vermillion River, for example, drains about 1.43 million acres or 2,233 square miles covering portions of 14 eastern South Dakota counties.

The Big Sioux River is 420 miles long and drains about 8,282 square miles in eastern South Dakota, southwestern Minnesota, and northwestern Iowa, according to the DENR.

“Storm drains are connected to a watershed,” Baumann said of how city or town life can impact a body of water.

Sioux Falls started a project in 2016 to paint storm drains in the city as a way to remind people about the importance of water quality. Artists started painting in June.

The water coming into a lake “at times can be coming from a long ways away,” Baumann said. The water can pollutants including pet waste from a storm sewer through the watershed and to the lake, he said.

“Something on Minnesota Avenue (in Sioux Falls) can impact the river downstream,” Entemann said.

Water quality can be impacted by organisms that travel from one lake or river to another, such as zebra mussels. The zebra mussel is an invasive species that attaches itself to boats and other watercraft.

A 2004 study by Michigan State University determined that lakes with zebra mussels had higher levels of blue-green algae that produce a toxin that can be harmful to animals and people.

Other studies show the invasive species also harms water by choking out other species. Zebra mussels can make water clearer but that doesn’t always translate to improved water quality because clearer water can cause more plant growth which can harm animal life in the water.

Can a downhill course in water quality be reversed?

It’s not too late to improve South Dakota’s water quality, Smith said.

Improving water quality isn’t only about recreational use but also about preserving wildlife and water sources, Entemann and Smith said.

The eastern South Dakota region is fortunate now to have clean aquifers to supply water to cities and towns, Entenman said.

But as the region grows, more water may be needed from sources such as the Big Sioux River, he said.

Cleaning impairments from water to make it safe to drink or for other daily uses is expensive, Entemann said.

Take the pandemic for example, he said. Look at how important hand washing has been during the past several months, he said.

Entemann said the timing may be ripe for change. Farmers are seeking ways to add value to their land and that increases interest in cover crops and other farming methods that can reduce fertilization and run off to streams and rivers, he said.

“Best Management Practices (BMPs) have been implemented throughout the state to help improve water quality conditions (a good example is the Skunk Creek Watershed),” Walsh said. “Currently there are nine projects that are actively working to improve water quality conditions, inform the public on ways to improve water quality, or researching different aspects of water quality issues in the state.”

The Skunk Creek Watershed area. DENR map.

The Skunk Creek Watershed project involves deferred grazing of pastures and maintaining a certain height of grass immediately adjacent to Skunk Creek.

For Smith, if water quality testing leads to a source of a pollutant, the solution can’t be about assigning blame.

People need to cooperate to find solutions to improve and preserve water quality, Smith said.

Entenman said he’s encouraged by how the public has been responding to water quality issues.

“We have seen a growing awareness of the need to do something,” Enteman said.

Although the decline in water quality is not encouraging, attendance at clean up and Riverfest events is.

A clean-up day is something the community can do together to improve water quality, he said.