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South Dakota losing public reservoirs, one torrential rain after another

The South Dakota Legislature has a menu of infrastructure fixes this year, including some state-owned spillways damaged in flooding and record rainfall in 2018 and '19. But few lawmakers will invoke the words "climate change," which an engineering professor says the state is not prepared to address.

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Hiddenwood Lake recreation area in Walworth County in north-central South Dakota has been closed since 2018 when heavy rain washed out a bridge connecting a road to the park.
Christopher Vondracek / Forum News Service

SELBY, S.D. — A half-hour south of the North Dakota border sits a wooden dock sticking out over a picturesque, tree-lined lake.

Well, it used to be a lake.

Now there's a grassy, weedy pit. And crumbles of an erstwhile bridge and dam, with the park unreachable.

On Thursday, Jan. 13, in Pierre, state Sen. V.J. Smith asked South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks Director of Wildlife Tom Kirschenmann about the recreation area's fate.

"We're going to talk about a subject that you and I hold dear ... [a dam] that was washed away about three or four years ago," said Smith, R-Brookings, "What is the prognosis of Lake Hiddenwood?"

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It's not the only park land shuttered on state rolls.

The South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks agency has requested $5.6 million to replace spillways on Lake Alvin, a ring of a lake east of Harrisburg, and on Newell Lake in Butte County, which has been closed since 2019. 

Both were damaged in 2018 and 2019 flooding. A South Dakota School of Mines and Technology professor says they represent the casualties of not just infrastructure dating back to the Works Progress Administration, but also climate change.

"What you're seeing here is a demonstration of infrastructure not resilient to 2021 climate, let alone the climate we're going to see," said Bill Capehart , an associate professor of civil and environmental engineering at the School of Mines. In some instances, such as at Hiddenwood, Capehart said the state needs to ask a tough question: "Is it worth building that dam back up again?"

“Climate" isn't a word one will spot on any bill titles posted for the South Dakota Legislature's coming agenda, though that isn't for lack of evidence of climate change. In 2019, for example, cities across South Dakota racked up record rainfall totals , boosted by the spring deluges that wreaked havoc on state infrastructure.

But in 2021, climate was invoked only rarely and indirectly, such as in a law enacted to reduce energy standards for new public constructions and by House Speaker Spencer Gosch's resolution to embrace fossil fuels after a rare winter storm knocked out power across Texas. 

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Lake Alvin, in Lincoln County, empties via 9 Mile Creek into the Big Sioux River. During torrential rainfall in the spring 2019, the park was closed for flooding concerns.
Christopher Vondracek / Forum News Service

Other ruby red states have talked climate change. In 2019, a legislative committee in Idaho opened discussion on climate change in the face of a lengthening smoke season. Last year, House Democrats in Texas launched a climate caucus. 

But in South Dakota, a longtime legislative observer says global warming does not come up in his memory, save for attracting adversarial resolutions trying to debunk it.

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"Ag and Natural Resources would be the committee that this would appear in front of, but most of those committees aren't filled with people who would be interested in climate change," said Michael Card, associate professor political science at the University of South Dakota. He noted the first legislative reference to “climate change” was in a resolution in 1998 urging Congress to reject the Kyoto Protocol to reduce greenhouse gasses.

However, Card added, Republican lawmakers are embracing bills that are cleaning up after or preparing for intense fluctuations in climate, or increasingly destructive rains and drought — whether they acknowledge the underlying science or not.

One bill requested by the Department of Public Safety dedicates $1 million to suppress wildfires. Another from GFP asks to add $500,000 to the state conservation program . A bill from Sen. Julie Frye-Mueller, R-Rapid City, would add electric-powered all-terrain vehicles to the list of ATVs approved for driving on public roads. 

Card said climate change will show up in two ways: in logging fights in the Black Hills, where federal officials say merchantable timber number are declining, and in crop damage due to flooding and derechos, particularly in the southeastern part of the state. 

Addressing climate change, while a nonexistent bogeyman in some political circles, often means reacting to its tangible consequences, supporters say. GFP officials in Pierre argue repairs to an area, such as Newell Lake, are needed to attract anglers, who buy bait, food, gas, and drinks from local C-stores. Capehart says some climate change scholars often couch topics through a national defense lens.

But one problem state officials are running into is funding. Kirschenmann told the Senate Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee on Thursday that GFP has sought dollars from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, but says past requests have been denied.

And with limited state funds, more precarious dams — such as the spillway on Richmond Lake northwest of Aberdeen that the Office of School and Public Lands is asking lawmakers to fund for $6.5 million — take priority.

As for Hiddenwood, it was a pounding rainstorm in May of 2018 that destroyed the bridge over the lake connecting visitors to the park area. Some reports say between 10 to a whopping 18 inches of rain in one evening fell — an amount Capehart calls almost unbelievable.  

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Hiddenwood Lake in South Dakota had its bridge and dam washed out in flooding in 2019, preventing access to campgrounds and park area and draining the lake.
Christopher Vondracek / Forum News Service

Nearly four years later, the lake is now more a slough, with a gate blocking the entrance.

And it may stay that way for awhile.

In response to Sen. Smith's questioning on Thursday, GFP official Kirschenmann said no plans exist for Hiddenwood at moment.

"We have worked and had conversations with local folks," Kirshenmann said. "But at that time, we just didn’t have funding to rebuild that one as it was."

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