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Questions raised as watershed projects merge in northeastern South Dakota

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USFWS
South Dakota's prairie pothole region in the northeastern corner of the state.

The merger of two watershed management districts in northeastern South Dakota is raising questions and concerns. Some say the change will create a district that’s too big to handle.

The Department of Agriculture recently announced that the Upper Big Sioux watershed project would merge with the Northeast Glacial Lakes project. The updated territory will have one manager.

A watershed is an area of land with a common set of waterways and streams that all drain into a single larger body of water, such as a river or lake.

The state can access federal dollars to fund EPA-approved conservation projects on a watershed.

In practice, state-paid contractors continually request funds from the state to conduct smaller projects as part of ongoing work to protect and/or restore a watershed.

Jay Gilbertson oversees the lower Big Sioux district in the Sioux Falls area. He said the merger is a necessary move.

“Finding a good project coordinator is tough. Finding two is twice as tough. And although it's a good-sized area, it's modest by current standards,” Gilbertson said.

The Northeast Glacial Lakes watershed includes lakes and ponds in the northeastern corner of the state. The Upper Big Sioux region focuses on the watershed leading into the Big Sioux River north of Watertown.

Gilbertson said the merger makes sense because the projects share a large border.

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DANR

Mark Roby, a board member of the Lake Kampeska Water Project in Watertown, is not excited with the change.

“The upper Big Sioux and Lake Kampeska, and the City of Watertown are gonna lose focus. We're going to lose,” Roby said.

The current watershed manager for the Upper Big Sioux district just retired. In addition, the manager for the Glacial Lakes region will retire by the end of the year. That has Roby and others concerned about the experience level of whoever fills the role.

In April, Roger Foote retired from the Upper Big Sioux position, after 20 years of service. He said whoever leads the new, larger project will likely need help.

“For one person to manage all that would be very difficult. But if there was a team of people involved with it, well, then it would possibly be doable,” Foote said.

The decision to merge came after the city of Watertown was unable to find a replacement for Foote.

The city was responsible because the state stopped funding the salary about six years ago.

“They never said anything to me. They never put anything in writing. They never sent me an email saying, ‘Roger you're not doing what you're supposed to be doing,’” Foote said.

Foote said over time, he did more work for Watertown and less for the Upper Big Sioux project.

In addition, Foote said his relationship with the Department of Agriculture fell apart after he publicly expressed concerns about some new dairy projects near Watertown.

“I did oppose a number of dairies. Only because the state was not enforcing their own rules,” Foote said. “I am not against dairies. But they should be designed to function correctly to state standards.”

Foote was concerned about water quality.

Brad Johnson served as chairman of the state Board of Water and Natural Resources at that time. Johnson confirms that the state stopped funding Foote’s salary and requests for project funding after he publicly expressed concerns about the new dairies.

“Roger basically said it's a threat to water quality, and he was basically stating the obvious. But the Department of Agriculture was in support of the dairy and advocating for it and they did not like the fact that he spoke, as they perceived it, against it. And so they applied pressure,” Johnson said.

Despite the concerns, Jay Gilbertson who manages the lower Big Sioux watershed said the merger lets the upper Big Sioux territory access federal watershed project dollars once again.

The state’s agriculture and natural resources department refused a request to interview Barry McLaury, the state administrator of the Watershed Protection Program. The department is meeting with regional watershed stakeholders about future project activities at the end of the month in Watertown.

Joshua is the business and economics reporter with SDPB News.