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Flood fight tough for towns

Charles Mix County Emergency Management Director Ron Gall looks on as efforts are made to drain floodwater from Ravinia Tuesday.(Laura Wehde/Republic)

RAVINIA -- Ron Gall took a look at the water and shook his head.

The Charles Mix County emergency management director was supervising an effort to move flood water away from homes in the hamlet of Ravinia on Tuesday. It was slow, frustrating work, as Platte Fire Department trucks tried to coax the standing water from the southeast corner of town into nearby Red Lake.

"Not having very good luck right now," Gall said. "We've had flooding before, but it hasn't affected residential areas as much as this one."

A sewage backup was the immediate problem, he said. The lift stations, which push waste along to the treatment facility, were failing.

The major problem, in addition to four days of heavy rain, was an antiquated storm sewer system in Ravinia, he said. The lines are 10 inches in diameter.

"They need to be two feet or bigger," Gall said.

But there's little money for a major sewer project in Ravinia, a tiny town of around 80 people. There are no businesses and the homes are modest, meaning there is no sales tax revenue and little property tax to use as well.

Federal grants are available, Gall said, but most require a 25 percent match. Ravinia uses the majority of its small town budget just to pay for streetlights, he said.

"They're going to go through hardships," Gall said.

Joe Dvorak of Pickstown is the regional director of the Midwest Assistance Program Inc., based in New Prague, Minn. Midwest Assistance Program Inc. is a private nonprofit agency founded in 1979 that provides technical assistance and training to small towns on water and wastewater systems. It has three offices in South Dakota.

"Ravinia's a mess, isn't it," he said Friday.

He doesn't say that lightly. Dvorak is a 1966 graduate of Ravinia High School. It was the second to last graduating class as the town began to wither.

The fact is that for some very small towns like Ravinia, their water and sewer systems are time bombs ticking beneath city streets, he said. "There's no doubt about it," Dvorak said.

Many assistance programs are unavailable for towns that can't come up with the money to help pay, at least in part, for the needed replacements or repairs, he said.

"They just don't have the tax base or the number of residents there," Dvorak said. "Their rates will have to be incredibly high to pay that off. I don't know what the median income is there, but it can't be very high."

According to, Ravinia's average household income is $38,000. The state average is $46,000.

The average value of a home in Ravinia is $25,000, while the average value statewide is $126,000.

According to the 2000 Census, the town's population was 71 percent American Indian, 23 percent white and about 6 percent other races. Ravinia is also a town of young people, with an average age of 23.8. The statewide average age is 35.6.

On Tuesday, three children strolled over to watch the efforts to pump out the water. One girl said the toilets in their house didn't work. They were driving to her grandmother's home on the edge of town to get water, she said.

Although the sewer system is still down, the flood water was cleared away by the end of the week and a crew will begin evaluating Ravinia's sewer system today, according to Charles Mix County Assistant Emergency Manager Mike Kotab.

"As far as I know, it can be repaired," Kotab said. "They're going to take a look."

Not always like this

Ravinia wasn't always the quiet, faded hamlet it is now, Dvorak said.

"It used to be a pretty good town," he said.

When he was growing up there in the 1950s and '60s, there were many businesses, including a café, a gas station, a grocery store, a post office, a mechanic shop, a municipal liquor store and two banks. Those businesses gradually disappeared.

"The town doesn't amount to anything anymore," Dvorak said.

He said after businesses close and the tax base narrows, towns begin to lose their vitality and the ability to deal with problems.

"That is a big part -- there are a lot of factors to communities beginning to due -- but when the infrastructure is not kept up and it's not adequate, it discourages any kind of housing development or businesses from coming in," Dvorak said.

Small towns are usually governed by locals who "take their turn" and often aren't informed of the serious issues facing the town or are unwilling to push for dramatic utility rate hikes, Dvorak said.

"It's certainly not a glamorous and exciting job," he said.

Linda Bambas is Ravinia's mayor. The small town, just two-tenths of a mile in size, is incorporated, but that might change. Bambas said they have discussed unincorporating and seeing if the county would provide basic services and if a rural water agency would provide water. It's a harsh choice, she admits.

"It is. The city has hardly any money in the budget," Bambas. "There's always that worry. If we don't have the money ..."

Ravinia receives money from the county from the wheel tax and household taxes and a small share of state liquor tax revenue, she said.

With only 20 households, tax revenue is slight, said Bambas, who works for the Indian Health Service in Wagner and has lived in Ravinia for 33 years.

Dvorak said it comes to local revenue. A town's utility customers must be willing to pay a rate to cover expenses and set something aside for the future. If they don't, their towns are facing major trouble down the road, Dvorak said.

"A lot of those systems do not develop any capital reserve funds at all," he said.

Ravinia is one of those towns will little money to deal with a crisis. Bambas said the town hopes the repairs aren't too costly.

The Corps of Engineers provided a pump that was set up Wednesday afternoon. By nightfall, it had helped lower the water level about six inches, Gall said. Bambas said by Friday, only two houses still reported slight pools of water were bothering them.

'Not uncommon at all'

South Dakota Municipal League Executive Director Yvonne Taylor said many small towns will face an infrastructure crisis in coming years.

"It is sadly not uncommon at all," said Taylor, who has led the league since 1996. Many more towns will face major infrastructure woes, she said.

Taylor said she has seen many towns face systemic collapses or serious troubles in the past decade and expects to see more soon.

One town has wooden pipes in its system. Many others have clay pipes, which was commonly used up until the middle of the 20th century.

"It wasn't meant to last this long," she said.

Dvorak said he's seen wooden pipes in several small towns, especially in Montana. He said in one town, the pipes had virtually vanished and the water flowed through the hole in the ground.

Many old sewer lines are made of the clay-based yellow bird tile, a popular choice decades ago.

"But they crumble," Dvorak said. "With age, they get soft and crumble. Tree roots run through them."

Many, if not most, of those systems should have been replaced decades ago, Taylor said. There's an easy explanation why they're still in use.

"The answer's pretty simple," Taylor said. "It's money. That would pay for infrastructure."

But she said there is little available money and less hope for some to appear for cities to repair or replace old, worn systems.

"Water pipes don't grow on trees," Taylor said. "It takes money to get them and it takes money to put them in the ground."

The state is facing its own fiscal problems and can't assist small towns, she said. The federal government, which funded many infrastructure repair and replacement efforts in the 1970s, no longer offers as much help for municipal governments, according to Taylor.

Efforts to allow towns to vote on local option sales taxes have been turned down in the Legislature, she said.

"We need to be able to raise money locally," Taylor said. "If you don't have any money, you can't do anything about it."

Water rates are often kept artificially low in towns, not allowing governments to bank money for needed projects, Taylor said. People think government services should be free, she said.

"Of course, that's not true," Taylor said.

Usually, the issue is ignored and towns hope their system continues to work, she said.

"I don't know what you do when your infrastructure collapses on you," Taylor said.

State DENR offers aid

The state DENR offers assistance, advice and funds to help towns upgrade their infrastructure, according to spokesman Kim Smith.

"We give out a lot of money every year for infrastructure," Smith said.

In 2009, the Water Resources Assistance Program provided $149 million in loans and grants to towns, special districts and agencies, according to its director, James Feeney.

For the 2010 fiscal year, low-interest revolving loans will be provided to several cities and towns that met eligibility requirements. Wolsey was approved for $668,500, with $66,850 in loan forgiveness, during an April meeting of the South Dakota Board of Water and Natural Resources, which reviews the Water Resources Assistance Program's staff reports.

The board meets again on Thursday. The Ellsworth Development Authority, which benefits the Air Force base near Rapid City, is seeking an $11 million loan. Mount Vernon is seeking $930,000, Spencer has asked for $425,000 and there are other requests as well.

Mitchell is on the list for the September board meeting. The city has asked for $500,000. Canova will seek $168,300, with $84,150 in loan forgiveness, at that same meeting. All these figures are estimates; the Water Resources Assistance Program provides money as a cost reimbursement.

The Clean Water State Revolving Fund (SRF) Program provides low-interest loans to governmental entities for clean water and non-point source pollution control projects.

Only governmental entities on the State Water Plan and with the authority to generate revenues and to repay bonds may apply. The governments in the plan pay back loans at a low interest rate, 2.25 percent for up to 10 years, 3 percent for 11-20 years, or 3.25 percent for 21-30 years.

Tiny towns with miniscule budgets are eligible for the Small Community Planning grant, which provides funds to hire an engineering consultant to determine what can be done about infrastructure issues.

Dvorak has high praise for DENR for its efforts.

"The DENR in South Dakota, they're a very conscientious agency," he said. "They try to help."

The state program also includes studying the community's utility rates. That, according to DENR spokesman Smith, is a factor a lot of towns need to consider.

"Eventually, you have to pay the piper," he said.

Smith said towns have to decide if they want to survive and how they can pay for needed water and sewer systems.

"That's probably a decision they have to make," he said.

Delegation pledges assistance

South Dakota's congressional delegation said they want to help towns struggling with flooding issues.

Rep. Stephanie Herseth Sandlin said Thursday she was aware of the issues facing small towns plagued by heavy rains and flooding.

It's hitting southeast South Dakota now, Herseth Sandlin said, but it was a major problem in the northeast corner of the state earlier this year. "This is why we've been working closely with the FEMA," she said. "We're getting help where it's needed."

There's a lot of help needed in the southeast corner of the state now. Several towns were inundated with floodwater, including Marty, which saw a flash flood sweep through town June 12. According to Herseth Sandlin, 60 families were forced from their homes and a fire truck was destroyed. The Yankton Sioux Tribal Headquarters was damaged and phone service knocked out to the offices.

Bureau of Indian Affairs staffers were called to town to help drain the excess water, while locals picked through sodden belongings and tried to assess the damage.

Sen. John Thune said he was keeping tabs on the issue and advised people and officials to contact his local offices if they need advice or assistance.

"My thoughts are with all of our fellow South Dakotans who have incurred great loss during the recent flooding," Thune said. "Infrastructure across our state has been damaged, including roads, houses, and land. State and local governments are taking advantage of the president's May 13 major disaster declaration to apply for federal assistance in repairing and replacing damaged infrastructure."

Sen. Tim Johnson said this is a seasonal problem and one the federal government can help solve or at least reduce the pain.

"It has been a very wet spring, and we've already had a presidential disaster declaration in South Dakota as a result of previous flooding," Johnson said. "As for the most recent flooding, federal help is a possibility once the damage can be assessed.

"If damage estimates appear to exceed certain levels, the governor may choose to seek a disaster declaration from the White House. In that case, as in the past, I would join with the rest of the congressional delegation to urge speedy approval of the request.

"Having said that, it's also important to remember that even if federal disaster assistance is approved, it's limited in scope and wouldn't cover everything, and that's why I'll be sure to pursue anything and everything for which we're eligible."

But that might not be an answer for some communities with little money, few if any businesses and a dwindling population.

Dvorak said small towns like Ravinia sometimes fade away when they can no longer provide basic services.

"This certainly could be the end of it," he said.