The city of Sioux Falls, S.D., plans to spend more than $1 million to pay farmers to keep their cattle out of the Big Sioux River and its tributaries.
For more than a decade, conservationists have worked to clean the polluted Big Sioux River. Millions have been spent to repair eroded banks, pay for buffer zones between animals and the water or to install manure containment systems on feedlots.
Despite all that, the waters circling Sioux Falls consistently carry too much E. coli and fecal coliform to be safe for swimming.
Some of the snags have been unavoidable, including flooding in 2011 that undid some of the city's bank restoration work and caused a sewage failure.
But other issues come down to perception: The notion that a single landowner can't make a difference and the idea that urban development doesn't shoulder its share of the blame has made the job of convincing livestock producers to voluntarily modernize for the water's sake a tough sell.
The latest attempt is a five-year plan where the city of Sioux Falls will partner with conservation districts to spend $1.6 million paying producers to keep cattle out of Skunk Creek during recreation season. The plan, Seasonal Riparian Area Management, or S-RAM, promises quick results and an easier sell, the Argus Leader reported.
Cattle owners keep their animals out of the creek from April through September and get an up-front payment of $60 an acre for 10- or 15-year commitments. They can hay the land, as long as the grass stays at least 4 inches high.
Already, there are nearly 600 acres enrolled along Skunk Creek, and water quality testing through the summer has shown improvements. The city's push to enroll 1,700 more acres in the program is the highlight of a larger, $9.1 million project whose ultimate goal is to improve water quality from the Brookings-Hamlin County line to Sioux City.
If the targeted approach to Skunk Creek is approved by the state and earns funding from the federal government, proponents say the results will help sway skeptics.
"We want to show producers that we can have results if we do the things we need to do," said Jack Majeres, head of the Moody County Conservation District.
History of pollution
The improvement push began in earnest in 1999, when the Environmental Protection Agency placed the Big Sioux River on a list of impaired water bodies, setting off a search for pollution sources.
Five years later, the state Department of Environment and Natural Resources released an exhaustive, 801-page report on the issues.
Urban development and stormwater runoff, naturally erodible soil and seasonal snowmelt were culprits, but the livestock and agricultural operations that pepper the watershed with manure, dirt and nutrients had a significant impact on water quality.
No one planned it that way, said Jay Gilbertson, head of the East Dakota Water Development District.
"Fifty years ago, the conventional wisdom was to build a feed pen in places where runoff or snowmelt would wash everything away and keep your lot clean," Gilbertson said. "The trouble is that all of it goes somewhere."
Conservationists, armed with enticements in the form of federal grant money, set about working their way through the watershed, knocking on doors and pitching modernization projects and management practice plans.
The results were mixed. Of the nearly 900 farms in the central Big Sioux watershed with livestock noted in the 2004 study, about 200 were considered priorities by the cleanup project's coordinator.
"Of that 200, there might be 50 of them that have something in place now," said Barry Berg of the South Dakota Association of Conservation Districts. "The majority of them, we haven't gotten to yet."
A 2010 DENR report on the effectiveness of the first phase of Central Big Sioux cleanup said the financial incentives for riparian management - fencing off pastures year-round - were fairly successful.
Agricultural waste systems were not. Smaller operators can't be forced to build one, and those who do need to be able to pay 25 to 50 percent of the cost themselves. And some producers resent being asked to change decades-long business practices.
"We have approached a number of producers, and they've turned us down because they don't think they're a problem," Majeres said.
Even the willing sometimes struggle with the big picture.
Ed Friske of Castlewood took federal grant money in 2008 for a vegetative treatment area to control the flow of animal waste, paying $11,000 out of pocket. It was meant as the first step in a multi-year project for his 150-head dairy operation, but Friske ultimately lost interest.
"Just one person can't do it," Friske said. "If I do it, there are four or five people to the north of me. I'll still get all the crap."
Return on investment
Berg still believes that ag waste systems are necessary to watershed health, particularly for feedlots nearest to rivers and stream, but they're expensive.
"When you spend $100,000 a crack and you get a million dollars (in grants), you do 10 and you're done," Berg said.
The watershed program had to find a way to get a bigger return. Enter S-RAM. It targets pastures, not feedlots, and factors in the time of year that cattle most likely to use the river for cooling off - April through September. That also happens to be when the EPA water quality standards for recreation - swimming, kayaking or wading - are highest.
Unlike the federal Conservation Reserve Program or the state Riparian Area Management programs, S-RAM gives producers flexibility. The setback requirements aren't as strict. Farmers can use the hay that grows on the land. It also pays for 75 percent of the cost for fencing and the installation of rural water for the grazing animals.
The water systems are key to success, Berg said.
If the animals can't use the creek to cool off in the summer and have clean water once the fence is open, the chances they'll use the water at all drop dramatically.
"If they've got a fresh water source, they're not going to go to the creek," Berg said.
Ron Alverson of Wentworth enrolled 30 acres of pasture next to Skunk Creek in S-RAM last year. He had a financial incentive to do what made sense for the water, he said. He'll retire soon, but no one who uses his land for the next decade will have cattle in the creek.
"It's about our duty to preserve our waterways and protect our natural resources," Alverson said. "It was an attractive price. Put those things together and you have a nice program."
Early test results show promise
Early results have been promising, Gilbertson said. East Dakota has been gathering samples from four locations along Skunk Creek all through the summer. So far, the sites next to land enrolled in S-RAM are coming in below the immersion recreation standards on several occasions.
"With the caveat that this is pretty raw data from the start of a multi-year project, the data seem to suggest that for bacteria, (the program) has a positive impact," Gilbertson said.
Gilbertson, Majeres and Berg have pitched the program to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which created a new funding source this year through the invention of the Regional Conservation Partnership Program. Berg applied for $1.86 million in funding from the new program, citing S-RAM's innovation.
Sioux Falls interest in Skunk Creek
The DENR and the city of Sioux Falls are paying attention.
The DENR must approve the new five-year plan and sanction $1 million in grant funding to make it happen. Pete Jahraus of the DENR took a while to support the half-season buffer zone, but the program's results have been "very convincing."
"We're excited about what's going on there," Jahraus said.
Sioux Falls is already on board. The Skunk Creek feeds the Big Sioux through the city, providing the only flow through town when the river's waters are directed into the diversion channel in the spring. That means quick results on the Skunk Creek could pay off in the Big Sioux.
The city spent nearly $2.5 million in federal loan money on bank restoration in and around the city from 2008 through 2013, though 2011 flooding damaged some of that.
"Since those got done, we've been looking at some other options," said Andy Berg, principal drainage engineer for the city.
The city's borrowing clout can make it a powerful partner for the watershed project.
Sioux Falls uses low-interest federal loans administered by the state DENR for clean water projects such as lift station improvements and sewer trunk line upgrades within the city limits, but it is allowed to set aside 1 percent of its interest payments for watershed projects.
For the city, acting as a funding source for local conservation districts made the job of connecting with upstream landowners easier.
"Five years ago, we had similar money, but we didn't have this partnership," Berg said. "The city was going out and trying to talk to landowners, and it wasn't working very well."
Now, landowners nearer the city will be higher priority.
The closer a landowner is to the city, the higher priority that landowner will be.
"We want to focus on Skunk Creek and water that comes into the city," said Jesse Neyens, an environmental analyst for the city.
The targeting makes sense for the city, Majeres said, but it makes sense for the watershed project, too. Focusing on specific, achievable tasks can provide results that prove the value of conservation work.
"To get immediate responses through the whole watershed, we'd need billions of dollars," Majeres said.
More projects to clean up rivers
The new plan has merged what had been known as the Central Big Sioux Watershed Project - Brookings to Brandon - with the Lower Big Sioux Watershed Project - Brandon to Sioux City.
The work is similar, Barry Berg said, and many of the partners were the same. Combining made sense, he said.
The initial focus on Skunk Creek, he said, was "a compromise," but there are other marks to hit in the next five years.
The projects are gaining momentum: There are 10 more waste systems being designed in Minnehaha County, which adds up to 16 in the past two years, Barry Berg said.
As expensive as upgrades are up-front for livestock operations, the investments can pay off in efficiencies. Cattle in the mono-slope barns with manure pits he pitches to landowners stay healthier, for example, and the stored manure provides a steady source of fertilizer.
"The guys who are not building the barns right now are falling behind the other guys," he said. "The new, innovative things . the early guys that jump into it are the ones that will be successful."
Water test results
The Seasonal Riparian Area Management program pays farmers $60 an acre when they sign 10- or 15-year agreements to keep their cattle — and the cattle's waste — away from river or creek banks from April 1 through Sept. 30.
To test the results, East Dakota Water Development District has collected water samples twice a week along Skunk Creek to compare site next to enrolled land with a site next to S-RAM land.
The following are monthly geometric mean E. coli ratings for the control site and S-RAM site, measured in colonies per 100 milliliters of water.
May, control site: 193.2*
May, S-RAM site: 90*
June, control site: 1,234.3
June, S-RAM site: 1,212.4
July, control site: 560.7*
July, S-RAM site: 121.9**
August, control site: 1,251.6
August, S-RAM site: 115.7**
September, control site: 1,248.5
September, S-RAM site: 211.7*
* = Meets water quality standard for limited contact recreation
** = Meets water quality standard for immersion recreation