South Dakota’s Water Crisis: A Call to Action for Cleaner Rivers and Streams

South Dakota boasts nearly 150,000 miles of rivers and streams, offering abundant natural resources and recreational opportunities. However, the state’s latest surface water quality report for 2024 paints a troubling picture: nearly 80% of these waters fail to meet state standards for safe water quality, affecting both recreation and aquatic life.

The primary pollutants identified are E. coli and Total Suspended Solids—contaminants that not only discolor our rivers but also pose significant risks to human health and the environment. The sources of these pollutants include riverbank erosion, agricultural runoff from large farming operations, and sewage overflows, highlighting a complex challenge in managing water quality.

Travis Entenman, managing director of Friends of the Big Sioux River, emphasizes the human health implications of these water quality issues. “When there’s excess nutrients in the water, the resources required to treat our drinking water significantly increase, impacting not just public health but also our wallets,” Entenman explains. This situation is exacerbated by the nature of the pollution itself, which largely comes from nonpoint sources—diffuse and difficult to regulate.

The state currently promotes voluntary actions by landowners to reduce runoff through incentive programs. However, these programs are overwhelmed by demand, with insufficient funding to cover the interest. This may soon change, as Entenman is hopeful for new funding opportunities from the Inflation Reduction Act. The act could support projects like riparian buffers, improved waste management systems for livestock operations, and innovative agricultural practices, all aimed at enhancing water quality.

Entenman likens the degradation of water bodies to “a death by a thousand cuts,” where isolated efforts are insufficient without collective action. “When a river or lake becomes impaired, it reflects a broader systemic issue that requires a unified approach to resolve,” he says.

This pressing environmental issue calls for increased awareness and action from both private landowners and public stakeholders to safeguard South Dakota’s water resources for future generations. As the state faces this pivotal moment, the question remains: Will we step up to the challenge and commit to the long-term health of our rivers and streams? The time to act is now, to ensure that the natural beauty and utility of South Dakota’s waters are preserved for everyone to enjoy.

South Dakota’s Water Crisis: A Call to Action for Cleaner Rivers and Streams

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