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  • Writer's pictureAmber Lively

Fact or Fiction: Get Smarter About Water Quality in the Big Sioux Watershed

Updated: Jun 21, 2023

Hi there - we're the Big Sioux River Project!

We have been working to improve water quality in the Big Sioux River watershed for more than two decades, but we realize we may not have had a proper introduction to the community just yet.

To start, we want to say HELLO! and clear up a few things about the river.

The Big Sioux River is not (and never has been) one of the dirtiest rivers in the US.

We've heard this rumor - we've even seen it in print! But here's what we want to clarify:

First, there is no way to quantify that statement. There are so many factors that go into water quality - we won't list them all here, but as a starting point, not all rivers in the US have the same impairments. That means that while we are primarily concerned with E. coli, sediment, and nitrates in the Big Sioux River, some areas across the country are concerned with heavy metals, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), parasites, and more. It would be nearly impossible to determine which rivers and streams were "dirty" and which were "clean". All natural bodies of water have some sort of contaminant - whether that's sediment, chemicals, or bacteria - and organizations like the BSRP and our Partners are working to actively mitigate and restore to their designated beneficial use (aka - the desired condition of the water).

Second, we recognize that the Big Sioux River watershed has roughly 80% of its water bodies listed as Impaired for meeting their beneficial uses. These impairments - whether for mercury, temperature, sediment, dissolved oxygen, phosphorous, E. coli, or any other impairment - did not happen overnight or by the actions of one. It will also take more than a few years of best management practices throughout the watershed to restore water quality. Our riparian land management programs are designed for 10- and 15-year contracts that help the land reestablish diverse native plant life and work to restore water quality over time. For more on this, check out our Achievements page!

There are several organizations actively working to improve water quality!

We hear the comments all the time : the River is so dirty and nothing is being done about it. That couldn't be further from the truth - the Big Sioux River Project and our Partners are constantly working to actively improve water quality. These land management practices just may not be as flashy as you'd expect.

The Big Sioux River Project works to address what is known as non-point source (NPS) pollution in the watershed. NPS pollution doesn't come from one specific source, like a discharge pipe; which makes it an issue that is more complicated to address than when there is a clear contribution source. We look at water quality data to see what specific needs each segment or stream has for improvements, and we work to recommend programs that best meet the needs of the land owners AND the needs of the neighboring stream.

To do this, we look at the South Dakota Department of Agriculture and Natural Resources (DANR) Integrated Report. This report assesses South Dakota's lakes, streams, and rivers and assesses whether or not they are meeting the allowable daily limits for criteria that support their designated uses. For example, in 2015, Skunk creek was listed as "Impaired" on the Integrated Report for E. coli and TSS (Total Suspended Solids). We focused on addressing practices that would mitigate these impairments along Skunk Creek. These practices, such as RAM, SRAM, CRP/CREP, EQIP, and more, control sediment deposition and runoff along the banks. As a result, in 2020, Skunk Creek was no longer listed as "Impaired" for TSS!

In 2023 alone, the Big Sioux River Project has enrolled 168 new acres (4.9 miles or 25,914 linear feet) in riparian land management programs. We are constantly seeking to improve water quality, and these new acres will help reduce sediment, bacteria, and chemical contaminant levels in the watershed!

Point of clarification: There is no measurement on the degree of impairment.

Quite simply, a water body is either Impaired or it meets its designated beneficial uses. When a stream, river, or lake is listed as Impaired, that could mean it is impaired by a small percentage, or that it does not support its designated beneficial use by a large margin. In the same vein, improvements to water quality do not necessarily mean that they will immediately result in delisting a waterbody from the Impaired Waterbodies list. The process is long, and every best management practice helps restore the watershed so that all can enjoy it in the future!

While it may be difficult to see what it looks like to remove E. coli or sediment from the watershed, our best management practices are hard at work improving water quality for all.

We hope you all will join us in celebrating how the Big Sioux River Project has actively worked to clean up the watershed:

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