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Controversy lingers as vote approaches on discharging wastewater into French Creek

Landowners along French Creek below Stockade Lake have erected many signs in opposition to the discharge of treated wastewater into the creek
Kevin Woster
Landowners along French Creek below Stockade Lake have erected many signs in opposition to the discharge of treated wastewater into the creek

To Neil and Jill Schanzenbach, “Not in my backyard” is a lot more than a common colloquialism used to describe opposition to a proposed project or development in someone’s neighborhood or town.

NIMBY applies to their backyard, literally.

Neil Schanzenbach stands in the backyard he and his wife, Jill, own along French Creek near Custer
Kevin Woster
Neil Schanzenbach stands in the backyard he and his wife, Jill, own along French Creek near Custer

Or at least it will, presuming that an improved wastewater treatment-and-disposal system for the city of Custer begins to discharge treated wastewater into French Creek about two miles upstream from where the creek runs along the edge of their property, 30 feet or so from their back door.

“This has totally consumed our time, energy and funds,” Jill Schanzenbach said, as we sat in their dining room and watched streaks of late-afternoon light filter down through pine trees onto the creek. “It’s personal, very personal, when the creek runs right through our property like this.”

It’s very personal for the Schanzenbachs and dozens of other property owners along French Creek downstream from the proposed discharge site below Stockade Lake. They worry about what the discharge will do to water quality in the creek, aquatic life including trout, relatively shallow drinking-water wells and property values.

Different people with different life stories, members of the group of property owners along the creek are united in this fight. It isn’t against the planned upgrade of the city wastewater-treatment system, which they know the city of Custer needs. The issue is the discharge location. They believe there are better options than releasing the wastewater into a cold-water trout fishery that is an essential part of Custer State Park, as well as their own quality of life.

Northern Hills natives who moved to their property along French Creek about 22 years ago, the Schanzenbachs have been among the most vocal and active of those opposing the chosen discharge option. Neil is chairman of Preserve French Creek, Inc., an organization of opponents.

“I got the job because I made the mistake of stepping out of the room,” he jokes.

But he’s not joking about the commitment he and others have to prevent the French Creek discharge. The odds seem stacked against them.

Hoping for a win in county vote on June 6

Several years in development, the $20 million improvement of the city wastewater treatment system with the French Creek discharge site has already been approved by the Custer City Council. It has also been permitted by the state Department of Agriculture & Natural Resources. And officials for the state Game, Fish & Parks Department — including parks and fisheries specialists — have reviewed and accepted the plan.

Construction is under way, with completion projected for sometime in 2025.

A section of pipe into Custer Park property up to the proposed discharge point on French Creek already has been buried. And when I was there recently for a look at the creek with Neil Schanzenbach, workers were burying pipe in the public right-of-way along U.S. Highway 16A back to the Custer wastewater treatment plant on the east edge of the city.

But the Schanzenbachs and other opponents gathered the required 375 signatures of registered voters in Custer County to put the issue on the June 6 election ballot in the county. It could be a little confusing to voters, however. A “yes” vote would actually be in opposition to the French Creek discharge by declaring it a public nuisance.

With permits in place and construction underway, it’s unclear whether a victory in that vote would have any practical impact. But it would reflect the opinions of county voters, something the Schanzenbachs believe would have value.

“Either way, I think the lawyers get involved,” Neil Schanzenbach said.

That’s usually the way it works in cases like this. And it tends to make government staffers careful about what they say, if they say anything at all.

I called the state Department Agriculture & Natural Resources in Pierre, an agency that now combines agriculture and environment and natural resources departments that were separate prior to the Kristi Noem administration. I was referred to a DANR (I still can’t get used to that acronym.) staffer who declined to say much, other than that discharging treated municipal wastewater into one type of water body or another is a commonly permitted practice across South Dakota and other states.

And, indeed, it is very common. It can also be controversial, usually depending on the particular water body involved.

OK, but can’t I just talk to a human being?

The DANR staffer also referred me to documents about the permit and the project on the department website, which was a sincere-but-mostly wasted recommendation to an online neanderthal like me. I’m lousy at searching internet data bases. And I hate it, too.

I much prefer getting the information from actual people, who know things. So let me be honest. I didn’t even try to search for anything online.

And I was daydreaming a little bit as the DANR staffer offered online search tips. I refocused, however, when he referred me to real people at DGR engineering. That advice I could take, since I know how to operate a phone and listen to someone talk.

DGR is the engineering firm the city of Custer hired to develop and present alternatives for needed upgrades to the Custer wastewater treatment system, including its discharge location. DGR, which will manage the project construction, has offices in three Iowa cities and in Sioux Falls.

The project manger of the Custer wastewater plant upgrade is Trent Bruce, a Custer County native who works out of the Sioux Falls office. When I reached Bruce by phone, I told him that I’d spoken with the Schanzenbachs and heard their list of concerns.

Bruce has heard those same concerns many times, of course. But he said they never stop being significant to him.

“I don’t blame them for wanting to make sure this is not going to degrade their quality of life,” he said. “If I were in a situation where I was going to have something different like this, I would want to make sure my quality of life would not be diminished, too.”

Same here. I don’t own land along French Creek. But like almost 2 million people a year, I love to visit Custer State Park, to bird watch or hike and occasionally to fly fish in French Creek. I’ve caught a few nice brown trout from the creek. And I’ve loved the fishing. It’s not Rapid Creek or Spearfish Creek by any means, but it’s a very nice little stream, well worth protecting.

So I made the obvious angler’s inquiry to Bruce:

“Are you guys going to mess up my fly fishing in French Creek with this discharge?”

Bruce said: “I don’t think there’s any reason to believe that would be the case. And I don’t think the state of South Dakota would allow this to be done if they thought it would be the case.”

Even with the best regulatory intentions, landowner worry understandable

Bruce continued: “The one thing I think is important to remember is that everything the city of Custer is doing is regulated and permitted by the state of South Dakota and their governing body, the EPA. If there were areas of concern, they wouldn’t be allowed to do it and wouldn’t be able to get the financial support from the government to do it.”

Of course, government regulators are usually well intended and well qualified and believe projects they permit will not harm people or the environment. But they are sometimes mistaken, to one degree or another. Projects don’t always

Opponents of discharging wastewater into French Creek worry about trout in the creek
Kevin Woster
Opponents of discharging wastewater into French Creek worry about trout in the creek

work out exactly as planned once they meet the wonderful, complicated, interconnected world of streams and groundwater supplies and riparian zones.

So landowner worry is understandable.

The city of Custer needs this upgrade, now and growing into the future. Because of its all-important slice of the Black Hills tourism industry, Custer’s wastewater system must handle more volume than in a typical city of its size elsewhere in South Dakota. And the system they have needs work, including the discharge point and the pipe it takes to get there.

Effluent from the system has for years been discharged into Flynn Creek, a smaller stream than French Creek without the private-property owner complications. But at least part of the wastewater pipe to Flynn Creek needs replacement. It might all need replacement.

Flynn Creek is also farther from the wastewater treatment facility and uphill, whereas the French Creek location is closer and downhill.

Running pipe to French Creek costs less for construction and is expected to be less expensive to operate and maintain. Out of the overall $20 million upgrade, the French Creek discharge option would cost slightly less than $3 million. Replacing part or all of the Flynn Creek pipe would range from $3.8 million to more than $7 million.

An option of running pipe to another waterway, Beaver Creek, was also farther away and more costly than French Creek. This option was further complicated by the fact that there isn’t an existing stream at the discharge point. The treated wastewater would be released at a point between two watersheds and run downhill through private property for about two miles to reach Beaver Creek.

“So a new, persistent water source would have to go through private property in a location that doesn’t currently have a stream,” Bruce said. “It would have to cross several properties.”

Along with more expense, the Beaver Creek option was deemed a poor choice because of impacts to downstream property owners, including “tourist attractions.”

The Schanzenbachs say they and their neighbors should receive the same consideration as property owners on Beaver Creek. They point out that Custer State Park is the most visited state park in South Dakota and French Creek is a beautiful part of the park.

The debate over potential pollutants

Then there’s ammonia. The French Creek option could mean higher levels of ammonia in French Creek. While still meeting state standards, the ammonia could cause problems over time, according to Scott Kenner, a professor emeritus in civil and environmental engineering at the South Dakota School of Mines & Technology. Kenner told Josh Haiar — who does read online reports, and seems to understand them — of South Dakota Searchlight that higher ammonia levels could increase plant growth and reduce oxygen levels in the creek.

Kenner also said phosphorous levels could increase in the creek. Phosphorous is a key nutrient in water-quality issues across the state and nation. Too much can further accelerate plant growth and decrease dissolved oxygen, which can lead to fish kills.

University of South Dakota freshwater biologist Jeff Wesner told Haiar that wastewater can also contain residues of pharmaceuticals and hormones, which also could harm aquatic life. Pharmaceutical residues have been found in treated wastewater across the nation and in some drinking-water supplies, but so far they are not regulated and their impacts are uncertain.

Some pharmaceuticals are biodegradable. Others are more persistent, since they are made to be stable and remain effective in storage over time. Researchers are seeking a stable drug that is also biodegradable.

Meanwhile, environmental researchers and regulators are studying pharmaceuticals, their presence in water systems and their environmental effects.

“It’s an emerging contaminant that EPA has its eyes on and will eventually come up with some standards,” said Sam Johnson, another engineer at DGR in Sioux Falls. “It’s not a contaminant that is currently being regulated. But it’s one of the things on EPA’s radar.”

Bruce stresses that the wastewater to be released into French Creek will be of higher quality than what is going into Flynn Creek now. And the plant upgrade will help prepare for tighter regulations in the future, if and when they develop, he said.

“There could be a day when permit requirements are greater than they are today. And the city of Custer will be required to meet those requirements,” he said. “The system is designed to be adapted to meet those changes.”

For now, landowners along French Creek worry about what is, including concerns about stream flow. Late in the summer and into the fall, there is often little flow in the portion of French Creek from the proposed discharge point down through the private property. So dilution won’t help reduce potential impacts of the wastewater, as it does in some creeks or rivers.

How much does dilution factor matter to stream?

A stream-flow sample used in the permitting process was taken at a gauging station about 20 miles downstream from the proposed discharge point. Flows are greater downstream than up where the wastewater would be discharged, landowners say.

“Their permit allows them to dump 750,000 gallons a day, which I’m sure won’t be the output, but it’s certainly a lot of wastewater when you’re not diluting it with anything for the first three or four miles,” Neil Schanzenbach said.

A picturesque stretch of French Creek below the proposed discharge point for treated municipal wastewater
Kevin Woster
A picturesque stretch of French Creek below the proposed discharge point for treated municipal wastewater

Bruce said the stream-flow sample was taken from first gauging station downstream from the proposed discharge point.

“Would stream-gauge data be different a mile downstream? Yes. But what I will tell you is the discharge we’re putting into French Creek is designed to meet zero water in the creek, as if there were no water flow,” he said. “It’s kind of irrelevant where they took the data. The discharge wouldn’t violate permit standards even if there was no flow.”

While the permit would allow for the release of up to 750,000 gallons of treated wastewater a day, typical flows would be 200,000 to 300,000 gallons a day, with a fairly consistent flow throughout the 24 hours.

Figuring in a common stream flow measurement of cubic feet per second (cfs), the discharge into the creek would be about 1.5 to 2 cfs.

As far as releasing treated wastewater into French Creek, Bruce said it’s “an accepted way of doing it. Very common.”

He said it’s “the exact same process that the state of South Dakota uses to treat wastewater in Custer State Park. It’s the exact same treatment system that they’re using at Sylvan Lake (Lodge), which discharges into Willow Creek.”

Johnson pointed out that Hill City discharges wastewater into Spring Creek, Hermosa discharges wastewater into Battle Creek, Rapid City discharges wastewater into Rapid Creek, Pierre discharges wastewater into the Missouri River and Sioux Falls discharges wastewater into the Big Sioux River.

There are many more examples of a very common, well-regulated process, he said.

Bruce and Johnson said septic-tank systems are more likely to cause stream problems than properly treated wastewater.

“If you were to ask the people who deal with this on a regular basis, there’s probably more concern with the raw sewage dumped into a septic system than with treated wastewater being released,” said. “We’ve done a ton of projects where we’re taking septic systems out of use so they can be tied into water systems.”

The discharge into French Creek will have to meet a higher standard than the wastewater currently being discharged into Flynn Creek, Bruce said.

“It’ll be higher-quality water,” he said, noting that landowners around Flynn Creek use the stream below the discharge point to water their horses.

Neil Schanzenbach remains skeptical.

“I don’t know, they may be right in their assumptions,” he said. “But they are sure making no effort to say, well, here’s the studies we’ve done. Here’s why this will be OK.”

Bruce said the project is designed to make sure things will be OK, again noting that even state fisheries professionals signed off on it.

“Truth be told if it was hazardous or dangerous or was going to be an environmental issue, we wouldn’t be able to do this,” he said. “That’s why you don’t see anything in opposition from the state. It’s permitted. It’s allowable. And it’s an environmentally friendly process.”

On the question of public notice, landowner comment

The landowners remain unconvinced. And it’s not just what might be in the treated wastewater that upsets them. It’s what they argue wasn’t offered to them: time to argue against the French-Creek option before it was permitted

Schanzenbach and other opponents say they weren’t properly notified of the specifics of the project and didn’t have time to organize opposition before the French Creek discharge was approved. He admits that the DANR met the legal standard of notification by placing public notices in the Custer County Chronicle but says that wasn’t enough.

“Yeah, it was in the paper of record,” Schanzenbach said. “And then you go and look at the subscriptions and, well, most people in the county don’t subscribe to it.”

By the time opponents knew exactly what would be coming to their creek, the process was so far along they had little chance to voice meaningful opposition, he said. The COVID-19 pandemic also complicated public meetings and likely limited the spread of pertinent information, he said.

But a new discharge into French Creek was certain to cause controversy, and regulators should have anticipated that, Schanzenbach said.

“They should have known that this was not going to go over well with the people down here,” he said. “They should have made it a point to contact us directly. People I know, people who live around here, none of them were notified.”

Bruce admitted that there wasn’t a door-knocking effort to notify residents along the creek of the plan. Landowners to be affected by the construction of the new pipe were contacted directly. And established environmental stakeholders who follow permitting issues received email notices of the project, he said.

There was more than the required legal notices in the newspaper, Bruce said. It was also on a website where public notices are listed. And there were news stories in the Custer County Chronicle and mentions on the Chronicle’s website and on its social media sites.

“We had 30-plus public meetings on this. It was in the Custer Chronicle in excess of 50 times,” Bruce said. “It has not been hidden in the background. It has been a big issue.”

It continues to be a big issue, leading up to the county vote Tuesday on whether to declare the discharge of Custer’s treated wastewater into French Creek a public nuisance.

Meanwhile, construction on the project goes on. And the Schanzenbachs continue to love their life along French Creek, where they also worry about what the future will bring to their backyard.

Click here to access the archive of Woster's past work for SDPB.