Programs created to improve Big Sioux River

Farm Forum

SIOUX FALLS (AP) — The Big Sioux River has gotten cleaner in recent years, but Sioux Falls city officials are not satisfied.

The city recently announced a series of programs to improve the river’s water quality, from educating pet owners about animal waste to paying farmers to stop polluting Skunk Creek.

“We as the city of Sioux Falls know that we have not been perfect,” environmental manager Bob Kappel recently said. “We have not lived up to our responsibilities fully over the years.”

The new strategies include educating pet owners about cleaning up pet waste, monitoring storm sewer outflows, adding water quality efforts to the city’s flood management plan, restarting an annual river greenway cleanup event, expanding waterway adoption programs and growing the mayor’s Big Sioux Water Summit.

“We really need to make sure that the quality of the Big Sioux River and Skunk Creek continue to improve,” said, Mark Cotter, director of public works. “It’s so essential to the environment, ecology and quality of life of Sioux Falls.”

Kappel said the city has succeeded in reducing the levels of ammonia, dissolved oxygen and iron in the river. The state Department of Environment and Natural Resources no longer lists those pollutants as impairments on the Sioux Falls section of the river.

“Sometimes, people get the idea that the Sioux River is a polluted river,” Kappel said. “That’s not really a true picture of the river. It is impaired, but it has improved dramatically.”

The river as it flows through the city still struggles with sediment and bacteria, however. The amount of E. coli bacteria in the river has been especially difficult to control and has led to restrictions on the river’s uses, most notably swimming.

“That’s what we’re trying to do — bring the river into compliance for those designated uses,” Kappel said.

To that end, the city is working with the Central Big Sioux River Coalition and several other conservation organizations on a set of aggressive programs to take the fight against E. coli to the next level.

Besides educating its citizens, the city will help pay livestock producers and farmers to keep animal waste out of Skunk Creek, which a recent study backed by the city found was the source of 48 percent of the Big Sioux River’s E. coli. Producers would get up to $60 per acre to create a riparian buffer zone around Skunk Creek to reduce bacteria runoff. Farmers also will be encouraged to stop using the creek to water their livestock and will be connected with programs to help them pay for alternative sources.

“Their main concern is it’s a change in their land management, it’s a change in how they’ve managed their operations successfully for years,” said Barry Berg of the South Dakota Association of Conservation Districts, who already has begun working with farmers on water quality issues.

Sioux Falls’ efforts to curb the sediment in the river also have seen success. So far, $6 million has been spent to create stilling ponds for storm runoff that allow brake dust and sand to settle out before the water hits the river. Another $1.2 million has been spent to upgrade the city’s flood control ponds.

Improving water quality has been a major priority for the East River Group of the South Dakota Sierra Club, and the city’s efforts to make the river cleaner all have been positive, said the group’s president, Dana Loeske.

“You’ve got to be optimistic,” Loeske said. “When you look at other cities in the Midwest, we are head and shoulders above any other city in investing in water quality.”