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Questions Raised as Watershed Projects Merge in Northeastern South Dakota

The merger of two watershed management districts in northeastern South Dakota raises questions and concerns. Some say the change will create a neighborhood too big to handle.

The Department of Agriculture recently announced that the Upper Big Sioux Watershed Project would merge with the Northeast Glacial Lakes Project. The updated territory will have a manager.

A watershed is an area of ​​land with a common set of waterways and streams that all flow into a single larger body of water, such as a river or lake.

The state can access federal dollars to fund EPA-approved conservation projects on a watershed.

In practice, state-paid contractors continually request funds from the state to carry out smaller projects as part of ongoing work to protect and/or restore a watershed.

Jay Gilbertson oversees the Lower Big Sioux District in the Sioux Falls area. He said the merger was a necessary step.

“It is difficult to find a good project coordinator. Finding two is twice as difficult. And while it’s a good-sized area, it’s modest by today’s standards,” Gilbertson said.

The Northeast Glacial Lakes watershed includes lakes and ponds in the northeast corner of the state. The Upper Big Sioux region focuses on the watershed leading to the Big Sioux River north of Watertown.

Gilbertson said the merger makes sense because the projects share a large border.

Mark Roby, board member of the Kampeska Lake Water Project in Watertown, is not enthusiastic about the change.

“The Big Sioux highs and Kampeska Lake, as well as the city of Watertown will lose focus. We are going to lose,” Roby said.

The current Upper Big Sioux District Watershed Manager has just retired. In addition, the Glacial Lakes Area Manager will be retiring by the end of the year. This worries Roby and others about the level of experience of whoever is filling the role.

In April, Roger Foote retired from the position of Upper Big Sioux, after 20 years of service. He said whoever leads the new, larger project is likely to need help.

“For one person to manage all of this would be very difficult. But if there was a team of people involved, well, maybe it would be doable,” Foote said.

The decision to merge came after the City of Watertown was unable to find a replacement for Foote.

The city was responsible because the state stopped funding the salary about six years ago.

“They never told me anything. They never put anything in writing. They never emailed me saying, ‘Roger, you’re not doing what you’re supposed to do,'” said Football.

Foote said that over time he had done more work for Watertown and less for the Upper Big Sioux project.

Additionally, Foote said his relationship with the Department of Agriculture fell apart after he publicly voiced concerns about some new dairy projects near Watertown.

“I opposed a number of dairies. Only because the state didn’t enforce its own rules,” Foote said. “I am not against dairies. But they must be designed to function properly according to state standards.

Foote was concerned about water quality.

Brad Johnson was then chairman of the State Board of Water and Natural Resources. Johnson confirms that the state stopped funding Foote’s salary and project funding requests after he publicly raised concerns about the new dairies.

“Roger basically said it was a threat to water quality, and he was basically stating the obvious. But the Ministry of Agriculture supported the dairy and defended it and they did not like the fact that it spoke, as they perceived, against it. And so they applied pressure,” Johnson said.

Despite the concerns, Jay Gilbertson, who manages the lower Big Sioux watershed, said the merger allows the upper Big Sioux territory to once again access federal watershed project dollars.

The state Department of Agriculture and Natural Resources declined an interview request from Barry McLaury, the state administrator of the Watershed Protection Program. The ministry is meeting with regional watershed stakeholders about future project activities at the end of the month in Watertown.