What is the future for South Dakota’s rural roads?

Following the catastrophic weather events the state has seen in the past few years, it’s clear we have a serious problem that will likely continue and perhaps grow worse. The roads in rural South Dakota just cannot stand up to continuous stress.

Winter thaws. Spring runoff. Summer thunderstorms. Add in the heavy fall precipitation and our gravel roads that outline our farmland have taken a pummeling lately. There’s been little to no relief.

In many instances, county highway departments are left to sort out the mess. As water flows over or completely washes out roads, agencies have to prioritize the worst of the worst. And which roads are used most often.

Multiple county departments recently told our newspaper they have nearly a half-million-dollars of fixes to be made. They’re hearing concerns from residents as some areas have been closed for months.

While our story was focused on a few of the harder-hit areas, we’re certain every county in eastern South Dakota is dealing with some issues pertaining to road damage due to flooding. You know what else this problem has in common? To make fixes, there needs to be money, equipment, manpower, time and good weather that allows for crews access to work.

And then, what’s to say it won’t happen again? Even if a road is built back up, we hate to say it but another flood could be right around the corner. There’s a lot of parts of our state where one massive rainfall could undo all of this work and create more damage elsewhere.

This shouldn’t be considered a county-by-county problem as, for the most part, we see it’s being handled as right now. Commissioners and highway departments shouldn’t be tasked with deciding whether to continue sticking money into band-aid fixes.

Look at northeastern South Dakota as an example. Years of drainage and flooding have closed hundreds of miles of rural roads. That area has significantly more lakes and sloughs than southeastern South Dakota, but similar problems have begun occurring further south in areas such as Lake Thompson near De Smet and Dry Lake No. 2 near Willow Lake. As the water drains, it needs somewhere to go — and that always impacts a travel route in one way or another.

So, what do we do? Millions of dollars are being poured into fixing gravel roads across the state in hopes we never see weather events happen on a similar scale. Unfortunately, we probably will and all that money, time and effort will for the most part be wasted.

We need to think about the larger picture and find ways counties and the state can work together to determine where to focus improvements. We know it’s already happening frequently that people are laying gravel and rock to take matters into their own hands. That’s not a realistic solution for what is a widespread problem, but increasing funding perhaps needs to be considered for consistent progress.

By now, we know there are too many miles of road and too many bills to be paid to catch up before another weather event strikes and causes more damage somewhere.

How do we address this? Rather than hoping and praying our area isn’t hit, we become proactive. We determine the most-traveled routes, significantly strengthen those areas and take a hard look at drainage. No one likes to hear about taxes going up, but earmarking dollars for rural roads is probably necessary.

This is a significant problem, and we hope collaboration can be made to address it.