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Mitchell leaders eye federal program to improve Firesteel watershed, bringing Fyra back into the mix

“This is more of a detailed approach in targeting hot spots that would give you the best bang for your buck as far as removing nutrients from Firesteel watershed,” said Public Works Director Joe Schroeder, who explained how the NRCS program works with farmers.

Water from the Firesteel Creek flows underneath the 406th Avenue bridge that leads into Lake Mitchell.
Water from the Firesteel Creek flows underneath the 406th Avenue bridge that leads into Lake Mitchell, which has been identified as a source of the lake's algae woes.
Republic file photo
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MITCHELL — City leaders are striving to make Mitchell the first city in South Dakota to roll out a watershed protection program with a federal agriculture agency to improve the Firesteel watershed.

The watershed protection program is offered through the Natural Resources Conservation Services (NRCS) and aims to improve water quality, reduce runoff from entering water streams, protect farmland from erosion and enhance riparian buffer zones.

Public Works Director Joe Schroeder said the program could “target hot spots” in the 351,000-acre Firesteel watershed where high concentrations of sediment and phosphorus are located. The program would also provide another avenue for the city to work with agriculture producers along the Firesteel watershed.

“This is more of a detailed approach in targeting hot spots that would give you the best bang for your buck as far as removing nutrients from Firesteel watershed,” Schroeder said. “You identify a project, and then work with the farmers in order to try and incorporate that.”

On Monday, the Mitchell City Council authorized the city to submit an application to the NRCS in hopes of bringing the watershed program to Mitchell and serving as a pilot for other cities in the state. If the city’s application is granted by the NRCS, it could bring back a Nebraska engineering firm that’s familiar with Lake Mitchell and the Firesteel watershed.

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Schroeder broke down the structure of the program and explained an engineering firm would be needed for the study phase of the watershed program. The city is tabbing Nebraska-based Fyra Engineering as the candidate to lead the study portion of the project, if it materializes to that extent.

Schroeder said the study phase of the program is fully funded by NRCS, but recommended projects identified in the watershed would be partly funded by the city with cost-sharing opportunities.

“The NRCS would see if it’s worth moving on to the study phase, and then we would consult with a consultant to move forward with the actual study phase. South Dakota hasn’t had an application for this type of grant yet, but it’s very popular in Nebraska,” Schroeder said during Monday’s meeting. “We’re hopeful South Dakota will see this as their first look into the program. We think our lake has enough significance to be a good pilot for the program.”

Mitchell Mayor Bob Everson said Fyra has had success with the NRCS watershed program and led designs for multiple cities in Nebraska and Iowa.

“These can be sizable grants. Fyra had several grants with this program that were $4 million to $5 million,” Everson said.

Fyra’s history with the city spans back to 2017 when the firm put together a pair of lengthy lake reports recommending the city dredge the body of water and focus on improving the Firesteel watershed to address Lake Mitchell’s poor water quality. Fyra was among the three firms that delivered proposals to lead design work for the lake dredging plan, but the city opted to go with a different firm, Barr Engineering. Barr’s lake dredging design work is still in motion.

Reducing runoff in the Firesteel watershed — which drains into Lake Mitchell — has been a shared mission among city leaders spanning several decades. After all, it’s a major source contributing to the algae woes that have been plaguing Lake Mitchell for years.

While dredging the lake has been a hot topic among city leaders, Monday’s discussion of the NRCS program shifted the focus back to the Firesteel watershed, which contains a creek that’s listed as an impaired waterbody.

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The city’s wetland project that’s planned to be built on roughly 30 acres of ground along Firesteel Creek is also on the horizon. The cattail-filled wetland will aim to drastically reduce the runoff from the creek and act as a phosphorus and sediment filter.

Steve Donovan has also been tasked by the city to identify potential new areas for future wetland projects in the watershed, which is being funded by a grant the city secured from the North American Wetlands Conservation Act (NAWCA). A part of the NAWCA grant is working with farmers to facilitate future wetlands projects upstream.

Councilman Jeff Smith suggested quarterly reports be presented detailing the ongoing work to improve the Firesteel watershed.

Related Topics: MITCHELLLAKE MITCHELLBOB EVERSON
Sam Fosness joined the Mitchell Republic in May 2018. He was raised in Mitchell, S.D., and graduated from Mitchell High School. He continued his education at the University of South Dakota in Vermillion, where he graduated in 2020 with a bachelor’s degree in journalism and a minor in English. During his time in college, Fosness worked as a news and sports reporter for The Volante newspaper.
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