‘That’s a lot of water’: Lewis & Clark Regional Water System setting records during 2021 drought

KELOLAND.com Original

VERMILLION, S.D. (KELO) — Not far from the bank of the Missouri River, Jim Auen pours and tastes one ounce of freshly treated water.  

It’s been a busy summer for Auen — the Operations Manager of the Lewis & Clark Regional Water System’s treatment plant. During the ongoing drought and constant high temperatures throughout the summer, Auen has witnessed a record-setting year for the treatment plant that supplies water for an area nearly the size of Connecticut. 

“I think every water system that we deliver water to has set records,” Auen told KELOLAND News on Thursday. “Lewis & Clark was designed to be a robust system that could provide aquete water resources to the member systems.” 

The state-of-the-art water system is delivering water to 15 members in South Dakota, Minnesota and Iowa as well as the city of Sioux Falls. 

This year, the system peaked with 32-million gallons processed in a single day and averaged about 28-million gallons a day through the month of June. 

“That’s a lot of water,” said Auen, adding the system draws water from 11 vertical wells that tap water from the Missouri River. “And that’s our max-well capacity right now.” 

Construction is finishing up on a new, 12th well near the Missouri River, which will help the Lewis & Clark system get near the 45-million gallons a day mark. 

For comparison, the Lewis & Clark system peaked at 26-million gallons a day in August of 2020. 

“It’s an unusual month to have those kinds of peaks,” Auen said about the June peak. “It’s that exponential increase that we see during drought years.” 

The city of Sioux Falls uses about 22-million gallons from the Lewis & Clark pipeline, the Big Sioux Aquifer and the Big Sioux River. One million gallons of water fit a swimming pool with a length of 267 feet, 50 feet wide and 10 feet deep. 

Troy Larson, the Executive Director of the Lewis & Clark water system, credited the vision of local leaders in the late 1980s which led to the non-profit organization starting in 1990. 

“The year we’re having is why Lewis & Clark is being built,” Larson said. “We need more water in this tri-state region for expanded economic development opportunities and quality of life.” 

Water from the Lewis & Clark pipelines reaches as far as Worthington, Minnesota. Larson said five members are still awaiting water, four are in Iowa (Sioux Center, Hull, Sheldon and Sibley), while Madison still awaits in South Dakota. 

“If anything, we wish it was bigger,” Larson said. “There are certainly cities and rural water systems that are kicking themselves that they weren’t part of the project when they had the opportunity to do so.” 

Auen pointed out annual growth in the region puts exponential demands for water, not linear. Lincoln County experienced a 45% increase in population from 2010 to 2020, while Minnehaha County added nearly 28,000 people in the past decade. 

“Growth is a good problem to have, but also you gotta be able to measure the water resources and the other resources that go along with rising populations,” Auen said.  

The exterior of the Lewis & Clark Regional Water System’s treatment plant just north of Vermillion.

He credited leaders from the previous generation for planning for future growth. 

“The best time to plant a tree is 20 years ago. It’s never too early to plan for the future in this region,” Auen said. 

Auen called on all water consumers to be aware of any restrictions in place from local water systems. He said “things can change very quickly” when it comes to water systems. 

For the Lewis & Clark water system, water rates cover 100% of the operations and maintenance expenses. Auen oversees the water treatment plant and a 13-member team that oversee the operations 24/7. He highlighted along with producing high-quality water (best tasting winners in 2016, 2017, 2018, 2020 and 2021), the facility has handled a drought that has many areas of the state listed under “extreme drought.”  

“If you are going to build a water system that is going to be drought resistant and high quality, you need to go to the source of supply that’ll give you that and that’s the Missouri River,” Auen said. “It’s the greatest natural water resource in the state of South Dakota.”

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