Senate panel keeps Big Sioux earmark alive

Capitol News Bureau

PIERRE, S.D. (KELO) — The House appropriations chairman asked his Senate counterparts Wednesday for $20 million as seed money for cleaning up the Big Sioux River basin throughout eastern South Dakota.

“You know,” Chris Karr told them, “this year we’ve had a lot of conversations about investments, and we talk, we hear, several times throughout this year that ‘This is going to be the most important bill of the session.’ I’m not here to tell you that, but I am going to tell you, that the subject of this bill is essential to life, essential to all life on the planet.”

Karr wants $20 million earmarked for state government’s task force on what’s known as non-point source pollution — essentially naturally occurring run-off that carries with it livestock manure, fertilizers and other chemicals from fields and lawns into streams and rivers and lakes — to combine with other sources of funding for only the Big Sioux watershed.

Normally the task force representing 30 organizations recommends granting smaller amounts that are five or six digits to projects throughout South Dakota in a highly competitive process. The long series of steps also involves the state Department of Environment and Natural Resources, the state Board of Water and Natural Resources, and ultimately the regional office for the federal Environmental Protection Agency.

“As a committee member it’s heart-breaking every year to have to say no to something that is going to improve water quality and the quality of people’s lives in South Dakota, simply because the funds are not available,” said Paul Lepisto, who represents the South Dakota division of the Izaak Walton League of America conservation group. “So this is urgently needed legislation.”

By the time senators finished asking questions, however, HB 1256 was down to $1, and a fingers-crossed promise to see what could be done in the last few days of session, amid many millions of dollars of competing requests. “As we work our way through the budget process we’ll know what money we have at the end, we’ll keep the discussion going, this can go to conference, and we’ll know more in the next week,” Ryan Maher said.

The task force chairman is Jay Gilbertson, executive director for the East Dakota Water Development District that’s based at Brookings. He participated by remote testimony. “The Big Sioux much like other rivers in the state has problems,” Gilbertson said. “These problems have taken a long time to develop, and we’re in the process of working toward correcting those activities.”

Riparian buffers — vegetation such as natural grasses — have proven effective along stretches of the Big Sioux and its tributaries, because they slow the run-off so the soil has more time to absorb it, according to Gilbertson. “The work to date has focused largely on the greater Minnehaha County area but we would hope to expand the buffer work into different parts of the watershed.”

Two major projects already are underway on the Big Sioux. One stretches from the community of Bruce north of Brookings downstream to where the Big Sioux flows into the Missouri River in Union County. The upper Big Sioux project covers everything north of Watertown.

State government also offers a tax incentive for buffer strips, but so far the practice hasn’t voluntarily caught on among many agricultural producers, in part because the size is restricted and the limited amount of the tax break that has been 40% and is going up to 50%. Gilbertson said the buffer strips the task force advocates are more popular because they are installed at a reduced cost to producers.

Deb Mortenson, representing the Nature Conservancy, spoke in favor of dedicating the $20 million. “We know it will work and have a positive impact on farms all the way to cities,” she said.

So did Scott Odenbach. “This is a statewide issue,” he said. “The Big Sioux River, even though I’m from Spearfish, this is my river also. It’s the river of my kids and maybe someday my grandkids and your kids. I’ve got family in Brookings, I’ve spent a lot of time around the Big Sioux and the lakes in our state. I’ve lived in Sioux Falls, I’ve walked the dog along the Big Sioux River, and I think frankly it’s a statewide embarrassment how dirty that river is and how long it’s been that dirty.

“And now we have the science. You’ve heard very briefly from some of these people but there are things we can do, and we’ve got a lot of money washing around in South Dakota right now. There’s a lot of discussions about how to be good stewards, how to invest it so it provides us benefits long term,” he said. “I really can’t think of anything better than this.”

The legislation squeezed through the House two weeks ago 48-20; special spending bills need two-thirds majorities, which in the House is 47.

Senate appropriators sounded skeptical. John Wiik told Karr, “This is twenty million dollars. This is a really, really big ask, and we have a lot of really good projects going around the state. I know I’m working with DENR and Mr. Gilbertson on a cleanup project at Big Stone Lake and we’ve got the issues of the water in the Whetstone River. We have issues in the James River. We have issues in the Belle Fourche River. Why are we spending $20 million on one river?”

“For me, coming from my experience as an appropriator, we’re always force to prioritize,” Karr replied. “I always put it, ‘the fire coming closest to town’ and this is one we can use the analogy, ‘the crocodile’s getting closest to the boat.’ What I’m saying is, the Big Sioux is one of the most polluted bodies in our state. It is a major issue.

“But I think that putting some of these measures into place, and they’ve started to do this, can make a big difference. We’ve just gotta keep doing this. It’s like the old analogy about the best time to plant a tree. Well, the best time to start addressing some of these issues, putting some of these measures in place, is, was yesterday, but we can do it today.

“It’s one of the most polluted bodies. That’s where — it takes a lot of dollars to do, to address all these bodies of water, but we can start somewhere, so — I’ve had others say, ‘Well, if we can’t do them all, we shouldn’t do one.’ To me it doesn’t make sense. If we have some dollars, we can allocate and prioritizing. This body of water has significant issues and it touches just so many lives — sixteen counties as I’ve addressed, a good portion of eastern South Dakota.

“That’s why the dollars are prioritized for this particular water project.”

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