New federal funds earmarked for SD rural water projects / Public News Service

Some rural South Dakota residents have difficulty accessing good drinking water, but the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation has awarded grants to two local communities to change that.

Nearly $13 million in grants from the WaterSMART drought mitigation program are earmarked for projects in Eagle Butte and Day County. Mni Wašté Water Company, operated by the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe, will receive $2.8 million to transfer water 10 miles northwest of the community to serve 17 existing homes and 20 homes under construction.

Leo Fischer, executive director of Mni Wašté Water Company and a registered member of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe, said the water company began planning this project in 1993, and in the meantime, people living there had to haul their own water.

“It's more of a nuisance than anything else because you transport it on the back of a vehicle,” Fischer stressed. “In winter, everything freezes.”

Piped water is important in the region because groundwater wells in the area are of poor quality, have to be dug deep into the ground and have proven unreliable.

Further east, the WEB Water Development Association is set to receive nearly $10 million to build a 40-mile pipeline that will provide drinking water to more than 700 people in the city of Waubay and rural Day County.

Shane Phillips, executive director of the association, said it was ironic to undertake a project in Day County, which is known for its abundant water resources.

“The true quality of the water in Day County is not great,” Phillips noted. “There are dissolved solids. It has a very high mineral content.”

Phillips added that the company hopes to begin its project to transfer and treat drinking water from the Missouri River in 2025. The Bureau of Reclamation awarded WaterSMART grants in 11 states this year.

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The Duck River, which flows through seven counties in Middle Tennessee, is on the national list of “most endangered” rivers.

The American Rivers organization compiles the list annually and explains that increasing development and multiple uses are overtaxing the Duck River's water reserves.

Grace Stranch, CEO of Harpeth Conservancy, said the river is home to more than 150 species of fish, 56 species of mussels and 22 species of snails. She warned that the river's ecosystem is at a tipping point due to population and industrial growth.

“When we look at the ecological conditions on the river, we are already seeing mussel strandings. That means there is not enough water and mussels need water. So they are, as we say, 'stranded,' meaning they don't have enough water to survive,” explained Stranch. “We are already seeing that at the current level.”

Stranch's group has submitted a three-part recommendation to Governor Bill Lee, calling for the formation of an expert group to evaluate water studies for the river, develop a comprehensive, long-term water use plan and allocate sufficient funding based on scientific data to ensure the river's protection.

Stranch noted that the Duck River is a source of drinking water for nearly 250,000 people in the region. She stressed that, given the region's increasing water needs, the choice must be between conservation and potential collapse.

“You have to get drinking water to all these new people. You have to have all these new connections for these developments,” Stranch explained. “Drinking water comes from somewhere. And most people in Tennessee don't realize that the majority of our drinking water, about 60%, comes from river sources in some form.”

Stranch added that her group is particularly concerned about the impacts of overuse during droughts. She noted that the Duck is also the backbone of the local recreational economy for anglers, boaters and kayakers, with more than 150,000 people using the river and its tributaries for recreation each year.

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While states across the West suffer from water shortages, a Utah community is receiving funding from the bipartisan infrastructure bill to support its water reuse and drought preparedness projects.

The Washington County Water Conservancy District in St. George received over $20 million in funding for its $1 billion regional water reuse system.

Zach Renstrom, general manager of the Washington County Water Conservancy District, said it will include new and expanded water treatment plants, new reservoirs and many miles of pipe, as well as several pumping stations.

“A lot of the initial funding will just go towards the design part, towards the design of these big facilities. But we can also use some of that money for construction. So there is a grant – they'll subsidize up to 25%. We're making progress now, so it's exciting to have all of those funds,” he said.

He added that water recycling plays a critical role in improving water supplies, especially in the arid West. Renstrom called wastewater a reliable source for reuse. Once water from showers and toilets is cleaned and tested, it is safe and can be used in a variety of ways, such as in parks or for irrigation. While it may be drinkable, he said, further treatment would be necessary.

In short, Renstrom says, the West needs more water, and reuse plays an important role in helping communities build local, drought-resistant water supplies for the future. He claims that in the past, wastewater was not viewed as a value, but that has changed because of the technology and improved treatment methods available today.

“A few years ago, this wasn't really considered seriously. Now it's actually becoming much more feasible to tap into this resource that hasn't been exploited in the past,” he explained.

Renstrom added that the reuse system will also create more jobs for the region and is just one way Washington County is looking to secure its water supply. The county's conservation plan is also leading the way, offering rebates for home and business improvements that save consumers water and money.

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What may seem like a minor administrative task at first glance could end up being a lifesaver for Minnesota's waterways, which need to be protected from farm runoff.

Lawmakers have paved the way for an important list to be updated. This year's legislative session passed an amendment to clarify the definition of public waters and provided funding for a multi-year process to update Minnesota's public waters inventory.

Carly Griffity, water program director for the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy, said these measures mean more lakes and rivers are likely to be eligible for required vegetation sections, called buffer strips, to keep pollutants such as nitrates out of the water.

“It really is a real problem that impacts communities,” she said.

The change in the law stemmed from a legal battle over a western Minnesota stream that ended up in the state Supreme Court. Updating the list was a compromise with agricultural groups that wanted certainty for farmers in planning their land use. Lawmakers also increased penalties for violating buffer strip requirements. The collective action follows significant growth in large-scale ranching operations in Minnesota since 1991.

While her organization welcomed these measures, Griffith said more needs to be done to limit the amount of pollutants entering water sources.

“We have data from the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency that [show] “On average, farmland drainage pipes contribute about 70% of the nitrogen to Minnesota's surface waters,” she said, “and in some areas of the state, such as the Minnesota River Valley, that number is even higher.”

She was referring to subsurface drainage from farms that bypass buffer strips. The state has implemented other strategies to slow fertilizer runoff, but not all efforts have been successful. Recently, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency ordered Minnesota to more aggressively address this problem in the southeastern part of the state.

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