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Officials: Clean up Big Sioux River, Skunk Creek in Sioux Falls

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Officials: Clean up Big Sioux River, Skunk Creek in Sioux Falls
Mitchell South Dakota 120 South Lawler 57301

By Peter Harriman

Sioux Falls Argus Leader

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SIOUX FALLS (AP) — The stretch of the Big Sioux River that flows through Sioux Falls should be safe for swimming, without fear that diving below the surface would require a visit to a hospital emergency room and a course of antibiotics.

This is called immersion recreation, and it is the South Dakota Department of Environment and Natural Resources' goal for the river, based on standards established in the federal Clean Water Act.

The DENR also has set a lesser goal for Skunk Creek to become a stream suitable for fishing and limited contact, such as wading.

Skunk Creek, though, provides most of the river's flow through the city in summer, because much of the Big Sioux upstream is directed to the flood-control diversion channel.

Sioux Falls recently completed extensive recreational and public entertainment improvements to the River Greenway through downtown, and planning has begun for the third phase of that project, Mayor Mike Huether said. It is an effort to enhance the Big Sioux as a valued amenity, and if the river ever does reach the immersion recreation standard, its value to the community will skyrocket, said Teri Schmidt, executive director of the Sioux Falls Convention and Visitors Bureau.

"That would be just another plus about Sioux Falls and the river and the Falls Park area," she said. "People love water, and a lot of people that travel are looking for areas with water that they can enjoy for recreational activities. One of those is being able to put your foot in it.

"If it ever became the case where it was completely safe for people to swim and we started marketing that, I have a feeling there would be people excited about it."

While the city's major use of the river is for drinking water, Huether said, its recreational potential is inviting.

"The goal is to make it look good, second, to be able to float on top of it in canoes and kayaks. But wouldn't it be wonderful if we could actually tube down that river and swim in that river?" he asked.

But for that to happen, Skunk Creek needs to change.

The levels of E. coli and fecal coliform bacteria and total suspended solids in Skunk Creek don't magically drop to immersion recreation standards — a maximum 235 E. coli colonies per 100 milliliters of water on any specific day and no more than an average 126 colonies per 100 ml in a 30-day period. So when the water passes beneath the Interstate 29 bridge on its short transit to the confluence with the river, for the Big Sioux to meet its target, Skunk Creek must exceed its own.

At this point, though, the DENR goals for both the Big Sioux and its tributary, Skunk Creek, are theoretical. DENR monitoring from May and August last year showed Skunk Creek actually had lower E. coli and fecal coliform levels than did the Big Sioux. However, the river and creek both are considered impaired streams, too polluted for their suggested use.

Now, a consortium of city, area and state agencies are trying to reduce the influence of a major source of E. coli — livestock — on Skunk Creek and significantly improve its water quality. The Seasonal Riparian Area Management (SRAM) program is a pilot program in the Central Big Sioux River Watershed project.

In the past, agencies have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to design and build manure-handling facilities for feedlots near Skunk Creek in an effort to lower E. coli levels in the stream.

This time, though, the answer to cleaner water during the recreation season might be as simple as a fence.

SRAM will pay farmers to fence livestock away from Skunk Creek's 100-year floodplain from April 1 to Sept. 30.

Payments are $60 an acre, per year, for 10- or 15-year contracts. The money is disbursed in a one-time, up-front payment. Farmers will be allowed to cut hay in the riparian area as long as they leave at least four inches of stubble, and SRAM also will pay for 75 percent of the cost of alternative water sources for farmers who relied on the creek to water livestock.

Barry Berg, South Dakota Association of Conservation Districts watershed project coordinator, pulled together the funding sources to develop SRAM. He said the program might be more attractive to farmers than another federal set-aside program, the Conservation Reserve Program, because SRAM is more generous in setbacks from the stream than is CRP.

The maximum riparian buffer CRP will allow is 120 feet, Berg said.

"That doesn't get a lot of producers interested. The floodplain can be a quarter-mile. At 120 feet, they would constantly be replacing fences," he said. Fences at the floodplain borders won't be swept away.

Also, because much of the foliage along the creek are cool season grasses such as bluegrass, it can be mowed for hay in the summer and still experience a burst of new growth in fall when weather cools. Farmers can put livestock back out on that pasture in October. Such haying and grazing are not approved uses for acres set aside in CRP.

With SRAM, "they get the best of both worlds," Berg said. "They can use the hay and graze it after the deferment period."

Ron Alverson of Wentworth enrolled a pasture of about 25 acres near Skunk Creek's headwaters in the SRAM program.

"In our instance, it worked really nice with this piece of property with Skunk Creek running through it," he said.

It's a narrow pasture, and because of that Alverson keeps stocking rates on it low.

"It generates very little income." SRAM "is a nice way to get some income off it and protect the water that goes through it."

"All us landowners have a moral obligation to do the best we can do so any activities on our land doesn't affect downstream neighbors," Alverson said. "I'm thrilled this program exists to help us."

Overall, the Central Big Sioux River Watershed project has $2 million for water-quality improvement projects, including SRAM. The money comes directly from the Environmental Protection Agency and U.S. Department of Agriculture's Natural Resource Conservation Service, and from EPA money passed through the DENR and city of Sioux Falls.

"Several years ago, the EPA and NRCS got together and came up with a national water-quality initiative. They asked all the states to select at least one 12-digit Hydrologic Unit," of 10,000 to 40,000 acres, says Pete Jahraus, DENR Environmental Scientist Manager II for Watershed Protection.

The Central Big Sioux project area of the river and its tributaries contains more than 1.2 million acres and includes 65 of the 12-digit Hydrologic Unit Codes.

"Because of its impairments and its importance to Sioux Falls, we chose four Hyrdologic Units in the Skunk Creek watershed," Jahraus said. "Barry had wanted to try seasonal riparian management."

SRAM will be recruiting landowners throughout the summer, Berg said. So far, about a dozen are participating, and three or four have indicated interest in taking part next year, he said. This summer, 589 acres will be enrolled in SRAM, about 11.1 miles on both banks of Skunk Creek.

Season-long monitoring will help determine the effect on water quality of fencing livestock away from Skunk Creek. The East Dakota Water Development District has a contract to do water-quality monitoring from April through September this year and next. Development district personnel took water samples the first week in May for baseline data. Those samples still are being processed. The staff will monitor a four-mile stretch of the creek south of Colton twice a week and a longer stretch that extends as far south as Marion Road, just above the confluence, biweekly through the end of September.

Jahraus, though, said monitoring should continue beyond two years. Jay Gilbertson, water development district manager, agreed that multiple years of data from high and low flow summers would provide a representive view of SRAM effects.

Two years of data, however, will show a notable improvement in water quality, Jack Majeres predicts. He is chairman of the Moody County Conservation District board of supervisors. The organization is the SRAM Skunk Creek project lead.

Majeres bases his belief on a similar project carried out about 15 years ago on a smaller Big Sioux River tributary, Bachelor Creek. It flows out of Wentworth Slough and enters the Big Sioux about 10 miles east near Trent.

The specifics of the Bachelor Creek project were different. A key distinction was excluding livestock from the creek for three months each year instead of six. But for the three years of the program, the result was the same, establishing a riparian buffer along the creek.

"We were very successful. We reduced the bacteria counts to acceptable levels within a couple of years," Majeres said. "We know the practice works in Bachelor Creek. We are confident we will get the same results in Skunk Creek."

Skunk Creek, however, flows for 58 miles from its source at Brant Lake north of Chester to the Big Sioux in Sioux Falls. There isn't enough money in SRAM to control all the livestock grazing along the creek, and any grazing that occurs can add to the creek's bacteria and total suspended solids burden and blur the effect of SRAM.

But you've got to start somewhere, Jahraus maintains. "We've got to work where we've got problems and willing landowners."

Even if unmanaged grazing dilutes SRAM's benefits somewhat, Sioux Falls environmental analyst Jesse Neyens contends the program will have a positive effect on water quality in the Big Sioux in Sioux Falls.

"It will certainly help what goes over the falls," he said. "We don't have control of everything. But the more we can put in the program, the more water quality should improve."

The signal success of a pilot program, after all, is to demonstrate that it should be continued on a grander scale.

"I don't know if this program alone will get the river to where it is fishable and swimmable," Neyens said. "We just hope for improvement. That's all we can hope for. We'll see what the impact is."

He insisted the Big Sioux can be made suitable for immersion recreation.

"It's doable, but there's a lot of work to do yet. We're in the initial stages of the water quality initiative in the city."

Gilbertson remembers the years when agencies spent money to improve feedlot manure-handling facilities in an effort to improve Skunk Creek's water quality.

"It's ferociously expensive," he said, "and unless the creek runs through your feedlot, short of a catastrophic failure or a 500-year rain, very little of what left your place was going to end up in the creek.

"Dollar for dollar, this is the most effective way to reduce loading in decades," Gilbertson said of offering farmers SRAM payments to fence livestock away from the creek.

"I'm looking forward to it. This is the kind of thing we should have started doing a long time ago."

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