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No applications yet for Big Sioux riparian buffers, despite new South Dakota program

The river running along South Dakota' eastern border -- which just 10 years ago made a list of America's most polluted waterways -- still has inadequate protection from runoff from farms, golf courses, and industry sites, say water experts. A $3 million voluntary program run by the South Dakota Department of Agriculture and Natural Resources started last month to attract landowners to create buffer strips, but has yet to attract any applicants.

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Wooded bend in the Big Sioux River, seen from overlook in Stone State Park, Sioux City, Iowa. Photo illustration, Shutterstock, Inc.

PIERRE, S.D. — The South Dakota Department of Agriculture and Natural Resources Cabinet Secretary Hunter Roberts told the Legislature's interim Joint Committee on Appropriations on Monday, Dec. 6, that attracting landowners and ag producers to convert strips of their waterway-adjoining lands in the Big Sioux River watershed to native vegetation is a "marathon, not a sprint."

Which is another way of saying no one -- a month into the program's existence -- has yet applied.

"We haven't gotten any applications yet," Roberts told JCA Co-Chair Rep. Chris Karr, R-Sioux Falls. "Hopefully, in the next month, we'll get a few to roll in."

In March, Gov. Kristi Noem signed House Bill 1256 , which deposited $3 million (DANR) into a fund to create a watershed for the Big Sioux River region. Since then, the Department of Agriculture and Natural Resources worked with wildlife and hunting groups, municipalities and one legislator to develop criteria for the program's eligibility and mapped out creeks that deposit into the Big Sioux they thought could play critical roles in river cleanup.

A review of DANR's riparian buffer initiative reveals that land must be within 120 feet of a body of water and possess existing perennial vegetation -- or plans to cultivate such vegetation. The owner cannot cut the vegetation between May and the end of July, nor graze the land until October. Finally, the law requires "four inches of cover" be left.

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But one key element of South Dakota's plan: it's voluntary. Landowners must feel a financial incentive to enter their land into buffer strips. Cropland can receive $171 per acre, while pastureland can fetch $45 an acre.

So far, South Dakota's $3 million Big Sioux clean-up program has paid out nothing. Roberts says he doesn't expect that to stay that way for long.

"Certainly, the way we're couching this is [as] another tool in the toolbox for those people," said Roberts.

In September, Roberts said, the fledgling program -- which has partnered with Pheasants Forever and Game, Fish, and Parks -- learned it did not receive a $9 million grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Moreover, even the $3 million allocated by the state would be a drop in the bucket of what would be ultimately needed to fully clean the river up.

Earlier this year, Roberts said he asked staff to draw up a hypothetical cost for buying buffer strips along 100% of the Big Sioux Falls.

"Their minds about exploded," said Roberts, noting the cost would run $175 million and last up to two decades.

During Monday's meeting, Sen. David Johnson, R-Rapid City, wondered aloud if the program would amount to more than wishful thinking for a river that in 2012 was declared one of the most polluted in America .

"I kind of sense you're crossing your fingers that there might be some [applicants]," observed Johnson.

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Roberts retorted that DANR anticipates spending the full $3 million in "four years, no problem."

Then, he qualified, "That's our hope. Our plan."

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