Tensions flare at pumped storage project meeting in Platte

Though construction, contingent on a study phase, would not be completed until at least 2035, the impact on land, water and recreation feels very real for area residents.

Residents look on at a hearing in Platte put on by Missouri River Energy Services and MidAmerican Energy on April 27, 2023.
Jason Harward / Forum News Service

PLATTE, S.D. — If there was one thing that everyone in the Platte Community Center could agree on, it’s that the bluffs overlooking Lake Francis Case from the west, just south of the Platte-Winner bridge, are unique.

For residents in the area, the distinctive hills, draped in pale shades of spring green and dotted with dark tufts of cedar and oak trees, engulf isolated ranch houses and provide valuable recreational opportunities for the local economy.

For MidAmerican Energy and Missouri River Energy Services, companies squeezed by accumulating environmental regulations on traditional energy generation, the 700-foot drop connecting the flat farmland near Burke to the Missouri River below could be the perfect spot for a newly fashionable form of energy generation: a pumped storage project.

The project, a sort of water battery, would put more than 1,000 acres of land underwater for an upper reservoir that, when drained, would use gravity to generate hydropower and buttress a greener energy grid potentially more susceptible to outages.

Though presented as realism over fewer allowed energy sources for more significant nationwide demand, some attendees criticized the companies for “fear-mongering” over potential outages.


Filling the reservoir with the needed 76,000 acre-feet of water — and remaining profitable in a process that loses about 25% of total energy due to friction up and down the hill — would require timing the pump with times of plentiful renewable energy sources, mainly wind generation.

The hills overlooking Lake Francis Case from near Lucas, S.D.
Jason Harward / Forum News Service

The differing visions, unable to coexist, clashed on April 27 in heated exchanges during two meetings held by the energy companies in Platte to answer questions on the proposed project in Gregory County and the connected transmission line extending into Charles Mix County.

Despite assurances that the project’s fate hinged on a set of 26 studies on environmental and economic impact — “In order for it to be an option 12 to 15 years from now, we have to start studying it now,” Adam Jablonski, the vice president of project development at MidAmerican Energy, said — the dozens of overwhelmingly opposed attendees were fearing the worst.

“When you’ve got land, it becomes part of your life. I don't know how many of you sitting behind the table own land or made a living on the land. But there's a difference. And so, I've heard you talk about eminent domain. Oh my goodness,” an elderly man, whose great-grandfather homesteaded in the Platte area, said to fits of applause. “Tonight, when you lay your head on the pillow, just think about what would happen when those people drive off their farm for the last time.”

Were the project to be permitted by the federal body in charge of overseeing the project, a decision several years down the road, the companies would have access to eminent domain and condemnation proceedings, though the representatives were clear on their preference for voluntarily acquiring the land.

The major carrot dangled in the presentations by Missouri River Energy Services and MidAmerican Energy took the form of millions in tax dollars to the counties and school districts, potentially lowering the tax burden for residents in exchange for the use of their land.

But opponents, referencing broken promises of video lottery and wind turbine revenues staying local, worried that the pot of money, though it may stay local under current law, would be redirected to the state general fund if the eye-popping numbers promised were ever realized.

“The numbers you’re telling these good folks that their school districts would get, are not right,” said Rep. Marty Overweg, of New Holland, whose district includes the proposed project area.


The most notable characteristic of the attendees — who traveled from Burke, Geddes, Gregory and even one speaker who had made the trip from Yankton — was the almost gregarious camaraderie that came from opposition to the project.

One speaker noted that the one or two-foot water elevation difference stemming from filling and draining the reservoir could kill off an entire year’s walleye spawn.

“That's just walleye. There are lots of other fishes spawning. So what if you can’t run that thing for six months out of the year?” he said in response to an assurance that the impact on fisheries would be studied.

After the retort, a man one row ahead turned and gave the questioner a fist bump.

The concerns of residents — and the studies meant to allay those worries — weren’t limited to populations of fish. Another major issue was the potential effect on water quality that comes from the frequent push and pull of thousands of gallons of water on the easily-disturbed sediments in the thin, snaking portion Missouri River.

“If anybody's ever been on the shore, on the west side of the river, if you've gotten out and peed on the shore, you created sediment out 50 feet,” said Larry Johnson, a Geddes resident.

Dave Meyernik, the president of Randall Community Water District, the major drinking water provider in the area which has an intake about three miles south of the planned location, noted that the organization already has some difficulty with clearing sediments stemming from projects of much smaller sizes.

“We're concerned about producing and maintaining all of our customers with good quality water,” he said.


Tim Sullivan, a regulatory specialist with Gomez and Sullivan Engineers, the independent contractor hired by the energy companies to handle the upcoming two-year study period required by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, or FERC, assured residents after seemingly every comment that their concern would be addressed in some way by one of the two-dozen planned studies.

“For us, you know, someone mentioned the shifting soils [that could be unable to support the reservoir], why would we invest if that's true?” Jablonski said. “The only one way to find out if it's true or not is to do the studies.”

The frustration for residents seemed to be that a currently vague threshold of results from the studies, rather not vocal opposition from landowners, would be the key determinant for the project’s next steps.

The upper reservoir itself would lay on about 1,000 acres of farmland northeast of Burke, S.D.
Jason Harward / Forum News Service

Another popular theme — and one in which the energy companies and opponents could find agreement — was the conspicuous absence of the Game, Fish and Parks Department from any public comment opportunities over the past several months. Leaving aside the potential impact on recreation, construction of the project would require building an access road through major game production areas on the west bank of the river.

Grumblings around the crowd alleged the department has been “muzzled” by higher-ups in the administration of Gov. Kristi Noem.

A spokesperson for Noem did not respond to a request for comment as of press time.

Moving forward, in about two weeks FERC will make a determination on the final study plan submitted by the companies earlier this month; a positive determination would begin the fieldwork required for many of these inquiries into a whole host of potential impacts.

Construction on the project likely wouldn’t begin until 2029 at the earliest, according to Missouri River Energy Services.


“We have to think about what our priorities are, especially considering the threats we face around the world,” South Dakota U.S. Sen. Mike Rounds said.

Jason Harward is a Report for America corps reporter who writes about state politics in South Dakota. Contact him at 605-301-0496 or

Jason Harward covers South Dakota news for Forum News Service. Email him at
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