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Brad Johnson: Gov’t Funding of Water Projects Keeps Rural South Dakota Alive

Brad Johnson, freed by Gov. Noem from his government post....
Brad Johnson, freed by Gov. Noem from his government post….

…Plus: Stimulus Worked, But Ag-Industrialists Block Progress on Water Quality

Bob Mercer should do more articles like his interview with Brad Johnson, the Board of Water and Natural Resources veteran whom Governor Kristi Noem replaced with more Pierrian crony Karl Adam. Mercer just asks questions, and Johnson gladly and extensively answers them.

Appointed by Governor Mike Rounds in 2003, Johnson, a Watertown guy, offers a quote that should appear on every U.S. Senate campaign ad in 2020:

Governor Mike Rounds gave me no specific direction.

No better summary has been spoken of the political legacy of Marion Michael Rounds.

But away from the personal, on the practical: Johnson notes that the government funding he oversaw has helped keep rural South Dakota alive:

In my time on the board, I signed more than $1 billion in loans and grants to communities. We have made significant strides in brining communities up to date. There remains a lot of work to be done and our smaller communities are paying much higher water and sewer rates than those who live in Sioux Falls, Rapid City, Brookings, Watertown and our other larger communities. We have worked hard to use grant funds to help out smaller communities survive. There remains a lot of work to be done.

Much of our smaller town infrastructure continues to be 60 to 100 years old. The board’s focus on providing grants to help these small communities improve their old systems is a large part of why rural South Dakota continues to survive. There have been times that the board has had discussions about whether a community being given a 30 or 40-year loan will even be around at the end of the term [Brad Johnson, in Bob Mercer, “Questions and Answers: Brad Johnson, Past Member of the South Dakota Board of Water and Natural Resources,” KELO-TV, 2019.08.18].

Johnson notes that the Obama stimulus dollars his board administered in 2009 and 2010—dollars Kristi Noem ran against to get where she is today—did exactly what they were intended to do, stimulating economic activity in South Dakota:

From March 2009 to February 2010, we held 15 meetings, up from our usual five, to distribute the $39.7 million of American Recovery and Reinvestment Act Funds that were part of the Obama stimulus money. This was on top of the normal work and that year we awarded $149.1 million in grant and loan funds to finance municipal drinking water systems, rural water systems, wastewater facilities, watershed restoration, solid waste disposal, recycling and contaminated land restoration activities. These funds resulted in $354 million of total activity that year [Johnson, in Mercer, 2019.08.18].

But what really gets Johnson fired up is what got left undone during his tenure on the Board of Water and Natural Resources—real action to mitigate water pollution caused and embraced by the blinkered Mickelsonian ag-industrial approach to economic development:

On the pollution front, South Dakota’s political leadership gives only lip service to preserving our surface water. This is directly attributed to the political power of the agricultural industry, which study after study says is the biggest cause of pollution in the river and our lakes.

South Dakota has the dubious distinction of being one of the few states to not have a pollution standard for nitrate pollution and phosphorous pollution. These two pollutants, often coming from feedlots and fertilizer, plus natural causes, and industrial plants and sewage treatment plants, are what causes the toxic algae blooms in our lakes. They also are a threat to human health.

We used to have a phosphorus standard until about 2006 when suddenly, it was removed as a pollutant standard. Ironically, the next year, the number of lakes meeting acceptable standards rose dramatically.

We cannot continue to turn a blind eye to the major issues threatening the health of our lakes, streams and rivers. The EPA 319 Watershed Protection Program has grown less effective during the time I served on the board. This is because Congress has earmarked equal or less money on an annual basis and the state of South Dakota has done very little to create extra funds to help clean up agricultural pollution [Johnson, in Mercer, 2019.08.18].

Sometimes the best political commentary comes from turning on the mic (or Bob Mercer’s tape recorder) and just letting the experts talk about what South Dakota government does right and what it does wrong.


  1. Caroline 2019-08-19 19:29

    And yet our state government offers bribe money to counties to add to our pollution problems.
    Every county commissioner in the state should read this article. I would urge all readers to forward this to their commissioners.

  2. Debbo 2019-08-19 20:26

    So what Obama and the Democrats did was successful on a more than 2 – 1 ratio. What Mikkelsen and the SDGOP did made things worse. I so wish the latter wasn’t so.

    There is a solution to SD’s continued decline and it does not begin with R.

  3. Debbo 2019-08-19 20:27

    (Gov. NoMore still doesn’t like hemp. Today’s meeting.)

  4. Donald Pay 2019-08-19 21:49

    Eliminating phosphorus standards to make the lakes look good is the South Dakota way of doing things. Corruption and dishonesty. It is refreshing to see some honesty from a Board member. The fact that Rounds didn’t give him direction is about the best thing he could have said about Rounds. You want Board members to think for themselves. Obviously, that’s not something Noem values.

    The Board of Water and Natural Resources was one of the good DENR boards. It was kind of a corrupt board before Governor Mickelson reformed the way it operated. From what I witnessed after that, it did a pretty good job of fairly and objectively prioritizing the projects it handed out money to, not to say that I didn’t have some beefs about the waste tire and solid waste and recycling priorities. Most of the money they hand out is federal money, but there is often a state and local match required.

  5. grudznick 2019-08-19 22:18

    I tend to agree with Mr. Pay on his first paragraph. I was confused by Mr. H’s blogging criticizing the former governor or perhaps taking this Mr. Johnson fellow’s comment out of context and using it in a way just to throw a mudball at Mr. Rounds.

    I, too, think that Governors should appoint board members and give them no direction. Board members, many of whom are friends of grudznick, need to have the autonomy to do what they want to do and make decisions without fear of government thumb-breakers and similar ilk.

  6. Moses6 2019-08-19 23:14

    Rounds will go down with a legacy of EB5 , He probably doesn’t care about his legacy as about what he does to support a crooked president in the White House.

  7. Curt 2019-08-20 21:55

    Gawd. Gulp. I think I agree with the Grudz.
    We need to have responsible citizens who are willing to serve on advisory boards and commissions. They should study the facts laid before them and make decisions on that basis. They do serve at the pleasure of the Executive. He – or she – is then empowered to have that appointee continue to serve or not.

  8. jerry 2019-08-21 17:01

    Water is life. In Egypt, they are moving Cairo because of water issues caused by overcrowding and infrastructure issues.

    Of course, we here do not have overpopulation to contend with so it is of particular importance to have clean water for even the smallest communities.

    Thanks to Rounds for getting the hell out of the way, by putting a very capable person in charge and a special thanks to President Obama for having the vision to care for rural America.

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