The recent blizzards and rainstorms that have flooded farm fields and decimated roads across South Dakota have exposed major weaknesses in the state's rural transportation network and created repair bills that may strain budgets of small-town and county governments for years to come.
Some local officials say the heavy flooding highlights the need for fundamental changes to how rural roads are maintained and paid for. They say the future of the state's agricultural economy and the safety of isolated rural residents could be hampered if rural infrastructure is not improved.
South Dakota is facing recovery costs that could reach into the tens of millions of dollars as a result of back-to-back winter and spring storms and the flooding they caused, most of it east of the Missouri River. Much of the expense burden will fall to sparsely populated counties and townships, entities charged with maintaining critical farm-to-market roads and rural infrastructure.
Local officials worry they may not be able to get things fixed quickly or at all. Many governments were struggling to maintain roads and bridges long before the blizzards and heavy rains of 2019. In Turner County, southwest of Sioux Falls, the cost to repair road damage this spring is expected to exceed the county's total annual road improvement budget.
Rural roads, many of which are gravel or dirt and highly susceptible to water damage, form critical infrastructure for farmers, ranchers and rural residents whose work forms the backbone of the South Dakota economy. Without solid roads that can support multi-ton farm equipment, farmers can't plant, fertilize, spray for pests or move crops and livestock to market. Rural residents cannot rely on those roads to connect them with paved roads, and emergency service providers also face challenges in accessing people in crisis.
"It really is a very serious economic problem," said farmer Jim Schmidt, a Lincoln County commissioner. "The public and the people in Pierre are going to have to ask how they're going to pay for this."
The problem is being compounded by an increase in extreme weather events. On average, the state is about two degrees Fahrenheit warmer now than it was 1900. That means the atmosphere can hold more water vapor, which allows more rain or snow to fall during a single storm. Since 1991, South Dakota has averaged 14 percent more 1-inch or greater rain events than it did between 1900 and 1990, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
State officials are working on a request for a federal disaster declaration related to the flooding. The declaration would provide for federal assistance but will not pay the entire repair bill. That is bad news for rural governments - and residents - because some roads are likely to remain closed until money is found to fix them.
Counties and townships had 30 days to collect and submit damage estimates to state officials following the emergency declaration by Gov. Kristi Noem last month. The state's total damage estimate will be available later this month, Department of Public Safety Spokesman Tony Mangan said.
Part of the problem is that counties and townships have few options for raising new money when needed. Instead, they must wait for the value of the property in their county to increase either through economic development or higher commodity prices.
Since 1997, townships and counties have been restricted from raising property tax rates as they deem necessary. That year, then-Gov. Bill Janklow froze the property tax rate and restricted annual rate increases to 3% or the annual increase in the Consumer Price Index, whichever is lower. Some years, that resulted in no increase at all in the property tax rate. Meanwhile, the cost of services has increased in necessary expenses such as employee health insurance and maintenance of gravel roads.
Schools still get the lion's share, about 56 percent, of all property tax revenue. Statewide, counties get about 27 percent and townships only about 2 percent. Counties, with voter consent, also can charge a wheel tax of up to $5 per wheel. The tax can't be more than $60 per vehicle. Counties get a portion of vehicle registration fees collected by the state and recently were given a portion of the fees collected on heavy non-commercial vehicles. If they charge a wheel tax, counties also can apply for competitive state grants from the annual $15 million Bridge Improvement Grant fund.
Townships can levy up to $.50 per $1,000 of the property value within their boundaries. Some counties, such as Hughes County in the middle of the state, don't have organized townships and instead fund all road maintenance on their own.
Rural counties and townships are struggling financially because the value of property isn't growing fast enough to cover the increased costs of doing business. Spending on public safety and criminal prosecution, mental health and employee health insurance all have outpaced the growth in property tax collections, a 2015 study by the Department of Legislative Audit found.
The result, in places such as Hughes County, is that projects have to be delayed. Former Hughes County commissioner Tom Tveit said at least one paved road in the county, Grey Goose Road, hasn't been resurfaced in almost 50 years. By state standards, he said, the road would be resurfaced every 30 years.
"It's equivalent to a homeowner buying a house and not replacing the roof for 50 years," Tveit said.
In 2015, revenue shortfalls led the Hughes County Commission to cut funding for the youth agricultural group 4-H. Two years later, the commission cut funding to the local library, which used the money to give free library cards to rural residents.
Several efforts have been made to give counties more options for raising revenue, most of them unsuccessful. During the 2019 legislative session, a bill to allow counties to charge a half-cent sales tax to fund courthouse and jail construction and maintenance was narrowly defeated.
Tveit, no longer a county commissioner, has pushed to reform the county revenue process. Meanwhile, counties will continued trouble with roads because farmers are improving production.
"Yields have increased," he said. "That means more traffic and heavier traffic."
State Climatologist Laura Edwards said South Dakota is wet and getting wetter.
"We have seen a wetter trend all over the state," Edwards said. "We're getting wetter faster than most other parts of the lower 48 states."
At least part of the wetter trend is due to an increase in the state's average temperature. The temperature increase has mostly been seen in warmer evenings in spring and winter. Warmer air tends to hold more moisture than cold air. "It's kind of like you're loading the dice," she said.
Being a little warmer and a little wetter has provided some advantages for South Dakota's farmers, who have seen higher yields on corn and soybeans.
As the spring of 2019 has illustrated, there are drawbacks to a warmer, wetter climate. The use of tile drainage in farm fields is one example of added expense and reduced access to fields can also occur.
While the number and severity of rain events varies wildly year to year, the trend is toward more extreme weather over the past 30 years with more to come.
"What we see going forward is precipitation coming in big, extreme events," Edwards said.
Overall, NOAA projects that the number of heavy rain and snow events will increase, especially in the spring and winter, which long have accounted for much of the damage done to rural roads.
Turner County Commission Chairman Lyle Van Hove said estimates are as high as $3 million for the county's share of repairs from recent flooding. Seven bridges in the county remain closed.
"We've got more damage than our total budget," Van Hove said.
Turner County cannot get its roads back to pre-storm condition anytime soon without state and federal assistance, said county Emergency Manager Brad Georgeson. "Some township roads are going to be closed indefinitely," he said.
In Lincoln County, repairing culvert and bridge damage could cost well over $200,000, said Terry Fluit, county highway superintendent. All told, Fluit said, storm damage on Lincoln County roads is expected to reach $600,000. "We haven't seen anything like this for years," he said.