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Water projects could get biggest slice of state's $1 billion COVID relief pie

The Missouri River
National Park Service
The Missouri River

The state of South Dakota still has nearly $1 billion of federal coronavirus relief money, and some state officials want to spend most of it on water projects.

"Benefits of water and wastewater funding are quality drinking water and necessary sewer services, which result in the health and welfare of out citizenry," said Hunter Roberts, secretary of the the Department of Agriculture and Natural Resources. "It protects the environment and our natural resources, and it can be an economic driver for our economy, certainly."

Roberts spoke at a recent hearing where a legislative committee reviewed the federal funding and heard spending proposals.

The money was awarded in March when Congress passed the American Rescue Plan Act and gave South Dakota $974.5 million.

Roberts' department wants to spend $710 million, he told the COVID Relief Liaison Committee last week.

The money would go to drinking water, wastewater, and sewer and storm-related projects to help prepare for workforce housing.

The funds can only go to government entities and nonprofits.

Roberts said DANR has received about 250 eligible applications worth more than $3.2 billion.

"We were shocked to see the volume that we got in applications. We knew there were some big projects but didn't realize how many small bread-and-butter projects there were out there that people were interested in," he said.

Aberdeen and the surrounding area have outdated infrastructure and not enough water to accommodate growth, according to City Manager Joe Gaa.

He said drought is causing Elm Creek to dry up, so the city would like to build a pipeline from the Missouri River. The project would cost between $271 million and $334 million.

Gaa said the problem is also hindering economic development. DemKota Beef and the AGP soybean processing plant want to expand, and there was a proposal to build a wet mill in the area.

Gaa said the company had a site just outside of Aberdeen with rail and natural-gas access, but not enough water from local water districts.

"We couldn't have pooled all the water together of all the districts and had enough for them," he said. "And just a couple of weeks ago it was announced that there was one of the biggest economic development opportunities in Grand Forks in North Dakota, and that's our wet mill. So that's what we lost, that investment."

Another group wants to connect the Missouri River to city, tribal and rural water systems in the western part of the state.

Sen. Helene Duhamel, R-Rapid City, and Dr. Cheryl Chapman pointed to a South DakotaMines study that says the region will need more water in the coming years.

One version of the Western Dakota Regional Water System would cost $1.9 billion while the other would cost $555 million.

Roberts said his department might be interested in giving the group a grant for further studies.

OtherproposalsforCOVIDrelieffundsinclude improving public transit, funding state parks and transitioning buses into electric vehicles.

The state Legislature and governor will ultimately decide what portion of the $975 billion to spend on water and other categories. The Department of Agriculture and Natural Resources will decide which water projects get funded.

Arielle Zionts, rural health care correspondent, is based in South Dakota. She primarily covers South Dakota and its neighboring states and tribal nations. Arielle previously worked at South Dakota Public Broadcasting, where she reported on business and economic development.