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Water at center of Hanson County dairy fight

This map shows the location of the Floyd East James Aquifer, which stretches for 436,800 acres in parts of Hanson, Beadle, Kingsbury, Miner and Sanborn counties. The aquifer has become a central point of contention in a dispute over a proposed dairy in Hanson County. (Image courtesy of South Dakota DENR)

ALEXANDRIA -- State officials are pondering how to measure the impact of a proposed 7,000-head Hanson County dairy's impact on an aquifer.

The state Water Management Board approved a water permit for the proposed dairy in July that would have allowed the dairy to drill three wells and pump 500 gallons of water per minute, or 720,000 gallons per day, from the Floyd East James Aquifer. After an appeal by the Concerned Citizens of Hanson County, Judge Sean O'Brien reversed the approval of the water permit April 11.

O'Brien's decision remanded the permit application to the state Water Management Board, but the board cannot formally re-evaluate the permit until all court proceedings -- such as an appeal -- are ended. It's unknown whether the dairy's developer will appeal O'Brien's decision.

O'Brien reversed the approval of the permit because, according to his written decision, the state Department of Environment and Natural Resources did not measure the annual recharge rate of the aquifer, and therefore could not know for certain what impact the proposed dairy would have.

"Everybody in this county is smiling," said Rob Bender, a resident of rural Fulton who has been leading the opposition to the proposed dairy.

Bender said he is concerned the two wells on his property would be affected if the proposed dairy begins pumping from the aquifer.

"I don't want my wells to go dry," Bender said. "I don't need any extra expense buying my water when I've already had it here for years."

In a recommendation to approve the dairy's water permit made in April 2011 to the state Water Management Board, DENR Chief Engineer Garland Erbele said there was a "reasonable probability" there was water available in the aquifer for use by the dairy.

He said in an e-mail recently to The Daily Republic that the DENR still believes additional water is available based on measurements from observation wells, which he said show there is more water in the Floyd East James Aquifer today than there was approximately 35 years ago.

O'Brien wrote in his decision that comparing the initial hydrograph measurement with the latest measurement did not meet the requirements of a state law, which forbids the annual withdrawal of groundwater at a rate exceeding the annual recharge.

Erbele declined to speculate on the requirements or cost of a study to measure the annual recharge rate of the Floyd East James Aquifer, but said DENR staff will evaluate options if the state Water Management Board reconsiders the proposed dairy's water permit application. O'Brien's written decision says Assistant Attorney General Diane Best indicated such a study would cost thousands of dollars.

Best said the approval of a state water permit has never before been reversed because of a lack of knowledge about the annual recharge rate of an aquifer.

An aquifer is an underground layer of water-bearing permeable rock or unconsolidated materials such as gravel, sand or silt.

The Floyd East James Aquifer is recharged from the underlying Sioux Quartzite and Niobrara Chalk aquifers, and from precipitation falling on the aquifer, Erbele said. It stretches for 436,800 acres in parts of Hanson, Beadle, Kingsbury, Miner and Sanborn counties. Currently, 53 irrigators are pumping an average of 2,459 acre-feet per year from the aquifer, along with six other users who are authorized to pump a total of 175 gallons per minute, or 252,000 gallons per day, for commercial, municipal and institutional use.

An acre-foot equates to the amount of water required to cover one acre of land to a depth of 1 foot.

According to Erbele, just the section of the Floyd East James Aquifer that is located within Hanson County contains approximately 322,800 acre feet of recoverable water, which equates to more than 105 billion gallons.

The proposed dairy's developer, Michael Crinion, and his attorney, Eric Kerkvliet, of Sioux Falls, have not returned calls from The Daily Republic.