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Government at Its Best: 40 Years of the Big Sioux River Greenway

Speaking of Michael Clark’s strange assertion that regular South Dakotans don’t want anything from government, KSOO’s Rick Knobe provides an excellent example of how South Dakotans can work together through government to create a really cool public good. Knobe celebrates the 40th anniversary of the development of Falls Park and the Big Sioux River Greenway. Begun under Knobe’s mayoral watch in 1975, Knobe says this massive park development project reclaimed the rusty, grimy river loop from haphazard private development and turned it into the city’s star attraction:

The Big Sioux River Greenway and Falls Park provide us with places to recreate, contemplate, meditate, make friends, heal wounds, get married, have reunions, and  learn about nature and life.

We experience cultural opportunities like Shakespeare in the Queen Bee Mill, music on the Riverfront in Downtown, and of course the giant Jazz Fest in Yankton Park.

Cultural and ethnic festivals, fund raising walks and runs, and marathons happen all the time.

Michelangelo’s statue of David adorns Fawick Park on the riverbank between 10th and 11th Streets.

There is the Outdoor Campus, Sertoma Park, the Butterfly and Marine House, to get closer to Mother Nature and learn.

Soccer and football fields, baseball diamonds, playgrounds, picnic tables and shelters abound. There are plenty of places to commune with your fellow man, and to be alone with your thoughts [Rick Knobe, “Our Biggest Liability Is Now Our Biggest Asset,” KSOO Radio, 2015.08.17].

Public goods like Falls Park and the Big Sioux River Greenway don’t just happen via market forces. They come from citizens working together through government to create an asset for everyone to support and share.

Big Sioux River watershed
Imagine that blue as a bike trail!

Knobe notes that he and former Sioux Falls commissioner Earl McCart dreamed of extending the river trail north to Lake Kampeska and south to the end of the Big Sioux at the Missouri River. That would require an even greater conversion of mostly industrial land (all those corn fields and dairies we pass are just food factories, right?) into a shared public good. But just as the conversion of the Sioux Falls river banks into public recreation area hasn’t seemed to hamper economic development in our biggest city, the conversion of the entire Big Sioux River into a 225-mile adventure trail (imagine it: Watertown, Castlewood, Bruce, Brookings, Flandreau, Dell Rapids, Sioux Falls, Canton, Hawarden, Akron, and Sioux City, all along the river instead of the highway) would be a boon for tourism, water quality, and property values in the I-29 corridor.


  1. mike from iowa 2015-08-18 10:53

    Did former US Atoorney General Ed Meese and his Meeseketeers force anyone to dress the David statue in pants so as not to offend Meese and wingnuts sensibilities?

  2. Donald Pay 2015-08-18 13:02

    Knobe came to power in a conservative backlash against the city’s old guard, who had actually been quite progressive, if rather traditional, in developing city parks and amenities. I think Knobe’s quick development as a more progressive leader on certain issues surprised a lot of people, including me. Really, though, I think a lot of credit has to go to Rapid City leaders following the 1972 Rapid City flood. RC pioneered the idea of a greenway through town, as a way to make sure no one would build again in the Rapid Creek floodplain. Sioux Falls just copied the idea from Rapid City and cities like Minneapolis.

  3. roger 2015-08-18 13:47

    A 100 foot buffer along with a bike trail all along the BSR would solve a lot of water quality problems. and would also set the stage for a few epic journeys….

  4. Deb Geelsdottir 2015-08-18 14:27

    Amenities like bike trails and river ways are exactly what attracts creative and innovative types to an area to grow an economy, taxbase, etc. Of course those aren’t the only things, but businesses do a jillion studies to determine how to make their state/county/city attractive for 1st class workers. Outdoor amenities are always near the top of the list.

    Want to know how to keep them away? After poor wages and benefit packages, big, stinking factory farms that destroy natural amenities are next most detrimental.

    Think about the anecdotal stories we hear from SD natives who return from elsewhere. Don’t they always say that SD is a good place to raise children? Then why permit all these CAFOs that destroy the state’s “Good place to raise children” vibe?

  5. caheidelberger Post author | 2015-08-18 17:53

    We have a thrilling 110-mile bike trail on the west side of the state through the Black Hills. Imagine if we could complement that with a 225-mile river trail on the east side of the state. South Dakota could make itself a veritable bike mecca. Every town along the Big Sioux could host 10Ks, marathons, Volksmarches. They’d get business from bike travelers.

    And yes, as Roger notes, taking those skinny acres along the river out of ag production and dedicating them to recreation would have a big impact on water quality.

  6. caheidelberger Post author | 2015-08-18 17:54

    Donald, that’s an interesting Rapid City connection. Did the Big Sioux ever pose the same flooding threat to Sioux Falls that Rapid Creek did to Rapid City?

  7. grudznick 2015-08-18 18:00

    In the Thousand Year Flood that Mr. Sibby knows is coming, the Big Sioux is going to overflow its banks and take a shortcut through town. Otherwise, Mr. H, there would seem to be a bit of a difference between the slow flowing Big Sioux meandering across flatlands and the gully washer effect evidenced in the Rapid Creek after a couple of inches of rain wash off the hill sides. I suspect Mr. Pay knows this but will focus on nuclear waste dump scenarios where the Rapid Creek management is part of the big picture conspiracy.

  8. mike from iowa 2015-08-18 19:06

    I had five inches of rain since yesterday and more on the way.Nice steady rain for hours at a time to soak into the soil and replenish groundwater. Still,there will be runoff from crop fields and feedlots. A good strong wind would raise heck with the corn since the roots are soaked. They would prolly lay right down in the fields and make a mess.

  9. grudznick 2015-08-18 19:12

    Mike, you are from Iowa. If you had a gullywasher all the pig poop would just be puddled at the bottom of the “hill” and the drive-thru crowd would sniff and scowl and try and hold their breath until they got across the state line.

  10. Donald Pay 2015-08-18 19:56

    Cory, the flood threat in Sioux Falls was supposed to be reduced by the spillway and diking system. I remember as a high school student in the late 60s that the spillway was close to being overwhelmed, and there was concern about major flooding. I think they built the spillway temporarily higher with wooden structures. The male high school students got off school in order to fill sandbags to be used to protect the spillway and other infrastructure.

    Grudz was slightly wrong about nuclear waste. What I’m going to relate is that that year the nuclear power plant east of Sioux Falls had just been shuttered, but still had lots of nuclear waste stored inside. That plant was poorly sited near the Big Sioux River, and there was a real threat that that plant was going to flood, especially if the spillway was undermined. I remember having to fill sandbags near that plant. I’m not sure if those sandbags were to protect the plant, but it always stuck in my mind how poorly sited infrastructure can cause big headaches if it floods.

  11. MC 2015-08-18 20:58

    I would support such a venture, provided it is public-private partnership. Businesses and civic groups would have to provide more than just money, they have to provide man hours to help build and maintain such a trail.

    I would like to see bike and canoe trails down the Big Sioux, The James, and even the Missouri rivers. complete with camping sites and places to re provision.

    This would be a great opportunity for towns and businesses along those rivers. For this reason they need to help to build and maintain trails.

  12. larry kurtz 2015-08-18 21:45

    Get a grip, Mike, the Big Sioux is a turd short of a Superfund site. Pick a lane, dood.

  13. MC 2015-08-19 06:42

    You’re right Larry. So what do we do about it?

    One of the few things I find amazing is that the earth has the ability to heal itself. Sometimes it is quick like a thunderstorm, other times it take a wee bit longer (several thousand years)

    Granted we have exactly been the best stewards. and maybe we strive to do better. The best way to help restore the Big Sioux River is to give people a stake in its health.

  14. larry kurtz 2015-08-19 07:02

    I’m right about everything, Mike. You, on the other hand, are clueless.

  15. larry kurtz 2015-08-19 07:07

    DD would be smart to pick you: you are pliable and complaint. Perfect for a moocher state legislature subservient to an autocrat.

  16. larry kurtz 2015-08-19 07:09

    complainer and compliant: how conservative.

  17. MC 2015-08-19 07:15

    I don’t see your solution.

    If you are going to whine and complain how filthily the river is then surely you have a plan to clean it.

    What Cory has presented seems like the best plan to date. I hope someone picks up the idea and runs with it.

  18. Lynn 2015-08-19 07:19


    If one of your stances is for the full legalization of marijuana watch Larry’s attitude towards you change. He will be your best pal.

  19. larry kurtz 2015-08-19 07:23

    Native pallid sturgeon and paddlefish are being reintroduced by the feds after my lobbying efforts. Getting the State of South Dakota out of habitat restoration and state politics is a must.

  20. MC 2015-08-19 07:55

    First, my apologies to Cory, for going off topic.

    Lynn, I don’t support the unrestricted use of marijuana.
    I really don’t care what other states are doing. This is South Dakota. We do things our own way.

    That being said, there is a lot about human beings and medicine we don’t know. I believe more investigation is warranted. I would like to see products like Charlotte’s web made available, under a doctor’s care. I would like to see UNBIASED studies conducted, and then, maybe allow limited use.

    I would also like to explore the idea of hemp (with the THC removed) as a cash crop. Hemp can be used in a variety of products.

    What I don’t support is a 16 year old smoking a joint while driving at 80 down the Interstate, or a doctor using marijuana to calm his nerves before he goes in to preform surgery.

  21. mike from iowa 2015-08-19 07:55

    Kurtz-R U mainlining peyote?

  22. larry kurtz 2015-08-19 08:15

    Doctors “preform” surgery on opioids all the time. Anyone advocating for 16 year-olds to legally drive under the influence of cannabis or any prescribed painkiller is a criminal. Hemp is an invasive species: its widespread cultivation is a threat to native grasses.

  23. larry kurtz 2015-08-19 08:18

    not you, mfi: MC is Mike Clark.

  24. John 2015-08-19 17:49

    It’s an open secret the lion’s share of the state’s trail grants go to the Black Hills area which, dah, has the public land base to support them. If east and central SD would stop playing nimby and otherwise work together (rights-of-way, easements, etc.)- they too, might tap into this bounty from the return of recreational federal gasoline taxes to the states. The sad reality is that is not about to occur.

  25. Lee SCHOENBECK 2015-12-24 18:53

    Nobody should brag about the state of the Big Sioux. there is much work needed. Watertown, as a community, has led the fight with the funding we provide through our utility bills for the Upper Big Sioux project. Sioux Falls can brag about the Big Sioux when its swimable in city limits – a long way from that now.

  26. grudznick 2015-12-24 22:38

    Mr. Clark, our friend Lar has some nasty rivers in his neck of the desert as well. But I, for one, prefer these federal funds to come to South Dakota so we can make canoe trails and such. But most of the money should go to the Black Hills because let’s face it, who really wants to hike from DeSmet to Volga.

  27. caheidelberger Post author | 2015-12-25 07:34

    Rrep. Schoenbeck, is there any chance we could pressure Sioux Falls to clean up its stretch of the river by building the Knobe-McCart Big Sioux Trail from Lake Kampeska to Sioux City? More tourism along that trail might make more visitors realize how bad the water quality is in Sioux Falls compared to the headwaters around your water-quality-minded community. Plus, you and Rep. Deutsch could form a two-wheeled interim committee to patrol the trail, take water samples, and hold hearings on your findings!

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