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Navigating Troubled Waters in South Dakota

By Sunni Heikes-Knapton

The story of a river is fascinating. It flows through time, space and cultures, while producing and supporting life. Rivers can unleash damaging torrents, and they also have their own experiences of hardships and scars. We rely on them, and they rely on us. However, sometimes they face troubles that require help from conservationists and land stewards.

A river in South Dakota contains all these traits, making its story both interesting and engaging. It also contains a strong theme of inspiration, thanks to the dedication of solution-oriented people who have been working on challenges on the Belle Fourche River for over 20 years.

A Complex History

The Belle Fourche River originates in Wyoming and flows easterly into western South Dakota. The name origin is French for “Beautiful Forks,” a nod to the impressions made on early French trappers who frequented the productive waterway for valuable pelts. The Lakota people in the area know it as Šahíyela Wakpá’, and it flows past historical and cultural landmarks that are important to several tribes.

However, during the past 125 years, activities on the land have resulted in challenging impacts to the waterway. As part of the state process of identifying waterways with significant impairments, it was determined that this river had problems, including excess total suspended sediment (TSS) and high levels of bacteria, specifically E. coli.

Historic alterations and irrigation practices were identified as contributors to the high TSS levels, and livestock impacts were identified as contributors to the E. coli levels. The course of the river where impairments were identified covers several counties in western South Dakota, covering an area of two million acres.

“We knew early on that it would take a partnership to find solutions to the problems,” described Karl Jensen, local rancher and founding board member of the Belle Fourche River Watershed Partnership. Jensen was serving on the Lawrence County Conservation District when Tom Quinn with the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) called several people together to discuss the state of the watershed in November of 2000.

They knew there was trouble in the water associated with a large area where several entities were actively working on soil and water management topics. The river flows through three counties served by the Butte, Lawrence and Elk Creek Conservation Districts, and the local Belle Fourche Irrigation District has more than 500 members. These entities were the natural starting place for the conversation.

The landscape and land uses of the region are variable, with rangeland supporting cattle and sheep production, and areas closer to the river with corn and high-quality hay production made possible by irrigation. With many different influences in the watershed and many different groups concerned with water quality and quantity, they knew that any sort of solution had to involve partners working in a collective effort.

The people involved are the biggest contributors to the success of the work we are doing. They are no-nonsense, hard-working, conservation-minded people who are willing to contribute what they have to offer without caring who gets the credit.

“We saw that this was way bigger than any one conservation district could do, so that’s when the formation of the partnership occurred,” explained Jensen. The group immediately got to work, bringing people to the table to begin addressing the degraded system. They formed the Belle Fourche River Watershed Partnership (BFRWP), a 501(c)3 nonprofit with a mission to “Coordinate available resources to address concerns associated with the Belle Fourche River Watershed and the riparian areas within.”

A key component from the early stages was the goal to form strong relationships that communicate ideas between interested parties. Tim Reich, chair of the BFRWP, credits these individuals as crucially important to beginning and maintaining their efforts.

“The people involved are the biggest contributors to the success of the work we are doing,” said Reich. “They are no-nonsense, hard-working, conservation-minded people who are willing to contribute what they have to offer without caring who gets the credit.”

This philosophy sets the expectation for cooperation. Along with NRCS, the conservation districts and the irrigation district, another important voice was that of the South Dakota Department of Environment and Natural Resources (SD DENR), which provided information on the status from their assessments and advice for possible approaches.

The Science of the River

The SD DENR is tasked with monitoring the quality of the water of the state and knowing where attention is needed based on the data they collect. An important document that results from their work is the state’s integrated report, which is essentially a report card for how the waterbodies in a state are doing, with the troubled ones being added to an impaired waterways list. From this list, projects such as the Belle Fourche River Project receive funding from U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA)’s 319 Nonpoint Source Program through a competitive process held by the state annually.

Kris Dozark, nonpoint source program manager with the state agency, described the role of this document: “Basically, every state has to come up with a list every two years of the waterbodies that have been assessed to see if they meet their assigned beneficial uses. So, every two years, we have to reassess everything with the new water quality data that we get to see if it’s impaired or meeting all of the assigned beneficial uses.” The entire river system was also divided into five segments in South Dakota to make the approach more manageable.

“The Belle Fourche River is a different system for South Dakota, because it’s very heavily irrigated,” said Dozark. “These conditions play a key role in the health of the river. Historically, much of the watershed was flood irrigated, which is a method where ditches and movable dams are used to distribute water across a field.”

While this method does deliver water to the crops, it can be inefficient, and excess water will often flow off the fields. As the excess water would move across the cropland, it would pick up sediment from the fields and ultimately carry it to the river, where the levels became too high. This excess sediment can impact the biology of the river, disrupting functions like the food chain, reproduction of the species living in the water, insect communities, and the quality of the river’s habitat.

Another factor impacting the water quality in the Belle Fourche River was excess E. coli levels. Livestock can be a source of these elevated levels, typically when the animals use the river for a watering source or when livestock have unlimited access to the sensitive streamside areas. When E. coli levels are too high, this can pose a health risk to humans who might be swimming or wading in the river.

By identifying these two areas of concern, the partnership had the focus of its work defined: Create opportunities for local landowners to participate in adopting practices that would ultimately improve the river. All they needed was participants, capacity and support.

The Value of the Voice

At the core of the partnership are representatives from Butte, Lawrence and Elk Creek conservation districts, whose focus has been on soil and water conservation since the 1940s. The function of conservation districts is to focus on the resource concerns most relevant for an area and to promote ways that these resources can be managed in the best manner.

By design, conservation districts typically have strong connections with agricultural operators. Many who sit on the boards are farmers and ranchers themselves, with deep roots in the community, practical knowledge of the land and resources, and a sense of humility that is common in this Midwestern state.

“We have local agricultural producers directing the work on our board,” said Reich, detailing how the situation benefits their project. “They are trustworthy, and they are also neighbors to the other producers in the area, so we have the confidence of the producers to be doing the right stuff to get good, practical and helpful conservation on the ground to any producer who chooses to work with us.”

Working on the Ground

At the very start of the project, the partnership knew that NRCS programs were a good fit for the solutions they had in mind, and that funding from the Nonpoint Source 319 program from the South Dakota DENR made them a key partner to address critical practice needs.

They started with the members of the irrigation district and focused on providing opportunities for willing landowners to convert flood irrigation to sprinkler irrigation and to improve the efficiency of the canals that deliver the irrigation water. As Jensen points out, “We looked at streambank stabilization, but we knew that irrigation improvements would be better, because they would also help with the economics for the producer.”

This type of work is commonly done under the NRCS Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP), as well as the 319 program, which both provide financial and technical assistance to producers to implement conservation practices. Interested individuals put in a voluntary application, and if selected, there is cost share money and technical help available to install a more efficient system. The state of South Dakota also had a special EQIP initiative, which provided needed support for these efforts in the Belle Fourche River.

With nearly 55,000 acres in the irrigation district, the need was great. Originally, less than 20 percent of the land was using the more efficient sprinkler system. Once the first participants got involved and could see the improvements to their operation, momentum and interest by other producers began to build. Since the inception of this project, over 100 different systems have been installed, which has brought the total acreage using efficient irrigation up to over 40 percent.

“There have been tremendous achievements made in irrigation efficiency,” said Justin Krajewski, project coordinator with the Belle Fourche River Watershed Partnership. His view on the factors influencing success also includes other practices that are compatible with the irrigation improvements.

“At the same time that water quality came up as an issue, grazing management strategies were expanding,”Krajewski said. “Being able to graze in a way that increases soil health and carrying capacity results in environmental benefits. Along with that, the irrigators began to see what could be done with more efficient systems; it allows for even more alternatives like residue management, cover crops and crop rotations, which all improve yields.”

All the while that the partnership was helping to install the systems, they were also focusing on demonstrating these compatible concepts like soil health and grazing in workshops, tours and meetings. “Improving irrigation is important, but it also provides a ready channel to work on soil health,” Jensen said. “The same is true on range improvement.”

Of the work done to date, livestock improvement efforts addressed 400,000 acres of grazing land. Practices that target the reduction of E. coli levels include improved grazing systems, livestock watering facilities, fencing, livestock water pipelines, streambank protection and riparian buffers.

Delivering Data

In the same way that water quality data influenced the start of conversations about the health of the Belle Fourche Watershed, it is the data that continues to play a key role in their work. While the state Department of Environment and Natural Resources maintains their regular ambient water quality monitoring program, additional data is collected to better reflect current conditions.

Quarterly samples are not quite enough to examine the recreational impairments, which happen from May- through September. So, the program incorporates additional sampling, which is managed by Krajewski. With this effort, they provide more regular sampling during the irrigation season.

“We’re starting to see a downward trend at some of the sites in the number of exceedances over the last three years, which we don’t see when we look at the long-term data,” said Krajewski.

For the foreseeable future, the collection of this data will continue until there are 2-3 years without exceedances. Even after 20 years, there remains a focus on installing practices and collecting data on the outcomes.  “You’re not done until you’re done,” he said.

Real Results

The years of successes built tremendous momentum.

“Even today, we always have a list of people applying to participate,” Jensen said when asked about the popularity of the improvements. He also considers another factor when gauging the importance of the upgrades: “Many of our producers that we helped directly with cost share have then gone ahead with irrigation improvements on their own. When a pilot project becomes replicable from self-financing, you know you have a winning formula.”

Reich discussed his perspective on what influences the success of the strategy. “It’s far easier to work with cooperators when we find out what their needs are and try to meet those needs, than to try to convince them they need something ‘important’ in someone else’s viewpoint,” he said.

With every application that is submitted for improvements, there is a cost associated to develop and install the practice, and that is where the other partners come in with support.

“Many times, we can find two or three other partners to support the projects,” said Krajewski. This includes a long list of local, state and federal partners as well as NGOs (see partner list below). “There’s a good partnership atmosphere that can stretch the funding to go even further,” he said.

It is part of our responsibility as conservation-minded producers to let people from the city know what we do and why we do it,” he said. “We do have a personal interest in leaving the environment in better condition than when we started. We don’t take that responsibility lightly.

To date, the partnership has received $8.7 million from 319 funds to carry out the work, and almost $30 million has been invested in the watershed as a whole to make improvements. Most recently, the project was also awarded a Regional Conservation Planning Partnership (RCPP) grant for $1.7 million, which also includes $1.7 million in partners’ contributions.

In addition to tours, meetings and workshops that educate people on the concept and the accomplishments, the individuals working at the core of the partnership have also learned some wisdom along the way.

“One of the important lessons is, ‘if at first you don’t succeed, try, try again,’” said Jensen. “We haven’t obtained every funding opportunity we went for, but we know it’s out there.”

Reich adds that taking their philosophy to broader audiences has been a lesson he has learned.

“It is part of our responsibility as conservation-minded producers to let people from the city know what we do and why we do it,” he said. “We do have a personal interest in leaving the environment in better condition than when we started. We don’t take that responsibility lightly.”

*Project partners include: Butte Conservation District, Lawrence County Conservation District, Elk Creek Conservation District, Belle Fourche Irrigation District, South Dakota Association of Conservation Districts, South Dakota Conservation Commission, South Dakota Department of Agriculture, South Dakota Department of Environment and Natural Resources, South Dakota Game Fish and Parks, South Dakota Grassland Coalition, South Dakota School of Mines and Technology, South Dakota State University, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, U.S. Bureau of Land Management, U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, U.S. Geological Survey, U.S. Natural Resources Conservation Service, South Dakota Soil Health Coalition, Bird Conservancy of the Rockies, Pheasants Forever, The Nature Conservancy, South Dakota Envirothon


Sunni Heikes-Knapton is NACD’s Northern Plains Region Representative and can be reached at sunni-heikes-knapton[at]nacdnet.org.

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