It is official: protecting our ground water is up to us

We have a problem in this state. There is no other way to open this blog post.

We have three fully allocated aquifers East River, where no more water rights can be granted. Seven more aquifers are close. We have a proposal West River for a uranium mine which is asking for the rights to 13,000 acre feet of water from the Inyan Kara aquifer. If that goes through, we’ll see more applications for uranium mines, and they’ll need just as much – if not more – water from the same aquifers. We have frac sand mine proposals coming through, mining which is extremely water intensive, and the only disposal method of the “sludge” left over after they wash the sand is to dump it back into the hole they just dug. Think mountaintop removal in the Black Hills, for sand.

We have a problem in this state, and that problem is our long-term ground water management. Or, more properly put, the lack thereof.

Yet the elected officials of this state seem to be blinded to that reality. That blindness came through in picture-perfect clear form last Thursday when the Senate Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee heard HCR 1025, the resolution which would have highlighted the simple fact that we need to deal with this problem, and deal with it now. The short story is that the bill was tabled at the end of the day. The long story, however, is far more interesting.

The hearing opened with testimony by the resolution’s sponsor, Rep. Troy Heinert, D-Mission.  His message was simple: this resolution is about the water, and opponents want you to read between the lines and bring smoke-and-mirror tactics to try to get you to vote against this, but don’t. Read the lines, and pass this through. Several others spoke for the resolution, including Rep. Kevin Killer, D-Pine Ridge; Jay Gilbertson, of the East Dakota Water District; Sen. Billie Sutton, D-Burke, and the prime sponsor in the Senate;  Paul Lepisto, with the Izaak Walton League; and yours truly, Sabrina King with Dakota Rural Action.

Our message was clear: this is an issue, this is important to people across this state, and this needs to pass. Our members have spoken out loudly and strongly in favor of both this resolution and in favor of better ground water management; Rick Grosek, with Bear Butte Gardens, put it best:

I’m very involved in my community.  I communicate with and network with many other agriculture producers, both in the Black Hills area and across the state.  I am among many, many other people who are very concerned about water – both quality and quantity.  I am not alone in my viewpoint.

Then it came time for opponent testimony, opened with the outrageous and what should be against-the-rules testimony by Larry Mann. Mann has been, for quite some time, one of the registered lobbyists for Powertech (soon to be Azarga). They actively lobbied against the resolution, yet when Mann got up to talk, he made quite the point that his badge was off and he was speaking for himself. We call BS, and it should have been called out in committee that when you’re hired by a client and you’re testifying on a bill in which your client has a direct interest, you’d better have your badge on.

But he wasn’t called out, and he spoke on how in 1989 the legislature did a shoring-up of all South Dakota’s environmental laws, so really we’re fine, we don’t need to do so again. But here’s the thing, Mann: 1989 was 25 years ago. That’s a long, long time in the realm of technology and ground water.

Then Mark Hollenbeck got up, and was at least honest in keeping his Powertech Lobbyist badge on. His testimony was simple, and basically alluded to the fact that Powertech worried this resolution would be waved about in the future. Translation: Powertech is worried that if the legislature says anything good about ground water, it will be bad for Powertech. What does that suggest, do you think?

Final opponent testimony was given by Angela Ehlers, with the SD Association of Conservation Districts. She said the SDACD was against the resolution. (But were they really, Angela? Because the Fall River County Conservation District was for it, just click here: HCS 1025. So it seems less that conservation districts were against it, and more that you were.) Ehlers also said the word “legitimate” isn’t in statute, so should be taken out of the resolution. Again, not true; the word “legitimate” appears twice in 34A-2-1, the statute referenced in the resolution. And with that last spurt of untruth, testimony was closed.

So this, then, is where things got weird. The word “legitimate” was amended out of the resolution, making it contrary to what is in statute. Then the word “mining” was amended into the resolution, again making it contrary to statute and making mining a more prominent and important use of water than it should be. And this is where the people of South Dakota start to disagree with their elected leaders. See, we don’t think mining is the end-all-be-all of economic development. And in fact, it is a well-documented phenomenon that areas reliant on resource extraction are less well off than areas with more sensible, long-term development. So no: mining is not more important than other uses, nor should it be.

Then the vote came to pass it through, and despite these changes, only the Democrats voted for the resolution, with all committee Republicans voting against it. Really, water shouldn’t be a partisan issue, but somehow it is.

And then, things got really weird. Clearly having no intention to support the resolution at any point, Sen. Larry Rhoden, R-Union Center, had been working behind the scenes with Sen. Dan Lederman, R-Dakota Dunes, to “hog house” HCR 1025 and turn it into an anti-water, anti-conservation, horrendous resolution, which you can click here to read: DRA 2.

Breaking all convention, Lederman was allowed to get up and talk about why he thought it was appropriate to take a pro-water resolution and turn it on its head. He’s against the proposed Niobrera Confluence and Ponca Bluffs Conservation Areas, and he wanted the legislature to validate his no-protection opinion.

Since all testimony time was over, there wasn’t an opportunity for a real hearing on this, but Committee Chair Krebs at least let Rep. Heinert get up to give his two cents on the new resolution language. His response? “This is the biggest slap in the face I’ve had since I got up here.”

And it was a slap in the face to everyone who had worked so hard on this resolution, and a slap in the face to all South Dakotans who believe in protection our water, and a slap in the face to anyone who believes in the proposed conservation plan. There was nothing appropriate or good about Lederman’s resolution, nor about how Rhoden brought it to the table.

It was clear, at this point, the hearing had become a circus. The motion to amend by Rhoden was ignored, and was substituted by a motion to table the resolution as-is was made and passed. It was a sham, robbing people of their opportunity to make their case for ground water protection, and the way it was handled in committee was beyond inappropriate.

So the question is, then, what is next? Where do you go when elected leaders will not even acknowledge a huge problem? What happens when the state keeps barreling forward with really bad proposals and without a thought in the world of where we’ll be in 20 years?

You keep fighting, is what you do. We have on record the opinion of our elected leaders. And we hold them to task for it. And we come back next year with a stronger coalition and a stronger voice, because you don’t let something like this go. We keep working to stop this absurd uranium mine proposal. We keep working to stop insane proposals for CAFO’s and factory production East River. We keep working with farmers and ranchers to find more sustainable ways of production.

We shouldn’t have to fight. We shouldn’t have to work this hard to protect our water. But the other side does, so we’ll keep fighting for our right to clean, abundant water. And we’ll keep fighting for a state with its priorities straight. And we’ll keep fighting until we get it.



  1. Wow…Sabrina, thank you for this excellent summary. I listened to this hearing and heard your very powerful testimony, and that of the other proponents…we are right to be concerned about our water, and time will prove this to be a valid concern. TO LISTEN TO THE HEARING, go to this link and choose 3-6-14 Debate:

  2. Reblogged this on Mining Awareness Plus.

  3. Sylvia Lambert says:

    So is this an example Rhoden and Lederman (who also make decisions about student education) displayed about “clear critical thinking” and “sticking to the point”, which we are supposed to teach to students, and which those legislators would expect of others?

  4. Don Kelley says:

    Great comments, Sabrina! Rhoden and Lederman represent the most discouraging characteristics of the reactionary majority in this legislature. It’d be great if more people could observe their disrespectful and arrogant behavior.

  5. Clearly something has gone very wrong here. As I read HCR 1025, it does nothing. Something much more is going on. There is no point in my guessing what that might be. I only know this: that something different must be tried. One way is to just kill the opposition, a plan I generally oppose. When you are having a disagreement with someone, yelling louder generally doesn’t help. You have to step back and calm down. I can tell nothing from these reports why the opposition hold their respective views. If I am right, it won’t help to keep pointing at water and saying it is good. The issue is likely much broader than this. It is a matter, I’m guessing, of competing values. More than this it might even be a matter of competing priorities. This axiological landscape must be laid bare. each acknowledging that of the other. It is risky. I’ve only personal experience with the art of coming to agreement. Politics, to me it seems, is the last place where rational discourse and agreement can take place. So it comes down to just beating other people on the head and thinking and speaking in terms of cliches, a strategy that does not engender mutual agreement and a spirit of something like compromise. It seems that is what has happened in this case. Pointing to the unacceptable behavior of some does not help. If you’ve ever been in an argument with a friend or spouse, you ought to know why. I don’t know the environment at State Legislature, but it seems to me that most our time needs to spent with the opposition, even if it is unfamiliar territory for us and them.

    • Kathy Durrum says:

      I would find it hard for anyone to say its ok to dirty our water, but there are those motivated by money that really dont care. They have their priorities because they can ruin the hills and leave with money in their pockets. I also will not turn the other way and claim I was ignorant in this regard. I will side with those morally accountable and preserve the water to my full capability.

  6. I want to comment here on HB 1193. As I understand it from the podcast, 1193 is inadequate. What it will essentially require is that there be a public hearing of experts to assess the mining operation and cleanup strategy. These are complex matters, only addressed in terms of probabilities. “Demonstrate” will not, I think, mean do some kind of experiment, but rather some kind of probabilistic study. I don’t know anything about these matters, but it might be possible to do an actual experiment. For example, if you require some kind of ground water isolation, you could inject some kind of tracer into the mining area and look for its appearance at other locations. You would have to be specific, indicating a time over which the transport is checked, and perhaps even concentrations. Nothing anywhere is completely isolated, not even the uranium right now. All of this probably already goes on to some degree. To this point all the bill appears to do is to make that process more explicit. I suspect that implementation of this bill would not have significantly affected the permit process.. The requirement of water restoration is more complex. Did you consult a mining engineer and a water restoration engineer? It may very well be the case that if this bill is executed exactly as specified that no mining could be done, or would be agreed to. Frankly, I don’t think the bill gets to the chief problem mentioned in the podcast. There are two significant risks that such ventures face for the state. The first is that the enterprise (as a incorporated enterprise) will declare bankruptcy. The second is that the contract is not sufficiently explicit. As the podcast points out, the exact time of the cleanup is not wholly clear. Must if be done by the time that the contract expires? What guarantee is there that there will be funds to cover the cleanup when it is to be done? Moreover, it seems to me that it behooves the state to be monitoring the process, ensuring not only that the enterprise is keeping its end of the bargain, but also having review periods where the water quality is being re-assessed, and possibly requiring re-certified cleanup strategies, or possibly even termination of the contract. A bond is mentioned. I assume this means that money is placed into escrow available as a means of ensuring that any cleanup or other expenses can be funded, and this money is placed there before the mining can begin. There may be a scheduled way of doing this. Since the bill is dead for this legislature, I’d like to ask whether a state initiative is possible to address the issue. How much can the initiative process directly influence the Board of Minerals and Environment permit process? Can it address a specific permit or must it be more general. After the debacle with a similar foreign investment up in Aberdeen, the public might want to be more cautious. With the risks much greater in this case and the “restoration” much more difficult, perhaps the populace are ready for more stringent guarantees.What we have to accept is that every human venture does violence and they all involve risks. I understand that. All mining has and will continue to scar the land. We depend upon such mining and could not be where we are without it. But it is also reasonable to perform, to the extent that we are capable, a more forward looking cost/benefit analysis. This analysis is not objective, but instead reflects subjective valuations. Nonetheless, such an analysis will attempt to lay bare what it is we are valuing or not. I don’t think there is anywhere to legislate this explicitly. The valuation is context dependent.

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