Sioux Falls garners its name from waterfalls that crash over tiers of pink quartzite in the middle of town. The city’s namesake is one small part of a system including the Big Sioux River and smaller streams. But with increased industry and development, the water quality is at risk. Now community leaders are establishing priorities to preserve the Big Sioux.
An orange-and-lime green kayak slides off the sand and slices through the shimmering surface of the Big Sioux River. I’ve watched this before, but never from this vantage point. I’m in a dress with my recording gear draped over a life jacket. I have headphones on and a paddle in my hands. I’m in a kayak.
"See? The wind’s in our hair. Your hair more so than mine," kayaker Cory Diedrich says.
Diedrich is one of the leaders of the South Dakota Canoe and Kayak Association. They’re offering an introductory experience to their sport off the shore of the Big Sioux in downtown Sioux Falls. They tell me I get the best views of Sioux Falls along the river. I also get a less-appealing perspective.
"But if you look to your right, there’s a green ball and a Pringles can. There was a beer can back there, a plastic bottle ahead," Diedrich says. "I’m not sure what thing on the left is."
Deidrich is my instructor. He notices trash snagged on branches in the middle of the river and points to refuse undulating along the edge of the water. He says people who kayak or canoe recognize that natural debris winds up in the river, for example, branches still cluster in the water following the spring ice storm. But he says man-made junk clutters the Big Sioux.
"So my son and I got in a tandem, and we just picked up garbage that was floating in the river. We didn’t go to the sides and pick anything up, and we had, I don’t know, a dozen pop bottles, a chunk of Styrofoam that was probably two feet by two feet or more," Diedrich says.
Steven Dahlmeier is president of the South Dakota Canoe and Kayak Association. He says members of his group hold events to extract some of the rubbish from the river, and sometimes they need the city’s help with items too massive for their bare hands.
"Plastic bags, bottles, tires, kiddie pools, air conditioners, bikes," Dalhmeier says. "You name it, we’re pulling it out of there."
Dahlmeier says paddlers are stakeholders in the Big Sioux River.
"We refer to the river kind of as our playground, and that’s where we go out and enjoy our weekends and our evenings. And we want to make sure that we protect it, we clean it, we do what we can to keep it the beautiful river that it is," Dahlmeier says.
It’s inarguable that areas along the Big Sioux River are earthy and stunning. But that doesn’t necessarily transfer to the water. Bob Kappel is the environmental manager for the City of Sioux Falls.
"The Big Sioux River is always going to carry a certain amount of sediment loading; it’s just the nature of Midwest rivers," Kappel says. "It’s not a clean river, neither. And the two big areas of concern are sediment and bacteria, and the biggest concern is bacteria."
Kappel says a tremendous load of bacteria washes off of area ag land and from homes and businesses within the city. That raises the bacteria level of the water way above the surface water quality standards – especially after rain.
"The city’s trying to do its part through wastewater treatment, through a stormwater management program. The ag community’s trying to do their part," Kappel says. "But a lot of times in the past is everybody kind of doing it their own way. Now we’re doing it as a collaborative coalition."
Kappel is referring to a master plan for the region that examines what the best practices are to preserve local waterways. He says the recommendations can guide watershed professionals. It’s supposed to be done this month.
Walter Schaefer lived in Sioux Falls for three decades; now he’s retired back to Winfred, South Dakota. But retired is a relative term. Schaefer now serves on the water committee in Lake County. He’s paying attention to the work in Sioux Falls.
"You know, we talk about the pollution in water, and we talk about the agriculture part of that, and that’s where I live now," Schaefer says. "But a lot of the pollution also comes from the urban area."
Presentations by experts say people can lessen their poisoning of natural waterways by limiting the chemicals they use. For example, they say people should follow exact directions if they choose to fertilize their lawns and do so sparingly. They also should clean up after their pets.
Schaefer says people underestimate the importance of water as a natural resource that supports literally everything people do. He calls it a precious commodity.
"They always say that western South Dakota always has been very concerned about water, water rights," Schaefer says. "Without water, your land basically is not real valuable."
Solving the trash and contamination problems of the Big Sioux River isn’t an easy fix. Even the Mayor acknowledges the difficultly, especially considering just two years ago Sioux Falls dumped raw sewage into the river in an emergency. Jay Gilbertson with the East Dakota Water Development district says multiple players have responsibilities to the water.
"A friend of mine was asked a question over at the Minnesota River Basin a few years back about, ‘How can we get the Minnesota River back to the way it was before?’ And the answer is easy: everybody has to leave. Well, that isn’t an option here, so you always have tradeoffs," Gilbertson says.
Gilbertson says communities should supplement volunteerism with mandates. Kayaker Cory Diedrich understands that need firsthand.
"The reason we’re out here if if you look forward you can see garbage on the left, garbage on the right, green and yellow stuff there, a can of something on the left here," he lists.
So kayakers say they’ll keep trekking into the river, using boats as barges to drag debris out of their water, as policy changes to improve the Big Sioux River.