South Dakota Public Broadcasting buries the lead in Joshua Haiar’s story of the merger of the Upper Big Sioux Watershed Project into the Northeast Glacial Lakes Watershed Project. We have to scroll more than halfway through the text (project coordinators are hard to find, but Lake Kampeska folks say Watertown water interests need a special focus that the merged district may be too big and hydrologically diverse to address) before we get to the real headliner: this water district merger appears to be the product of political retribution against Roger Foote, the Upper Big Sioux Watershed Project director who did his job and pointed out that permitting more factory feedlots in the area could harm water quality:
The decision to merge came after the city of Watertown was unable to find a replacement for Foote.
The city was responsible because the state stopped funding the salary about six years ago.
“They never said anything to me. They never put anything in writing. They never sent me an email saying, ‘Roger you’re not doing what you’re supposed to be doing,’” Foote said.
Foote said over time, he did more work for Watertown and less for the Upper Big Sioux project.
In addition, Foote said his relationship with the Department of Agriculture fell apart after he publicly expressed concerns about some new dairy projects near Watertown.
“I did oppose a number of dairies. Only because the state was not enforcing their own rules,” Foote said. “I am not against dairies. But they should be designed to function correctly to state standards.”
Foote was concerned about water quality [Joshua Haiar, “Questions Raised as Watershed Projects Merge in Northeastern South Dakota,” SDPB, 2022.08.26].
Brad Johnson, who chaired the state Board of Water and Natural Resources when the state defunded Foote’s position, says yup, that’s what happened:
Johnson confirms that the state stopped funding Foote’s salary and requests for project funding after he publicly expressed concerns about the new dairies.
“Roger basically said it’s a threat to water quality, and he was basically stating the obvious. But the Department of Agriculture was in support of the dairy and advocating for it and they did not like the fact that he spoke, as they perceived it, against it. And so they applied pressure,” Johnson said [Haiar, 2022.08.26].
Johnson says the state wasn’t just out to give Foote the boot; our CAFO-addicted state officials evidently sought to kill the whole Upper Big Sioux River Watershed Project:
The nearly 30-year-old Upper Big Sioux River Watershed Project unceremoniously ended last week, dying a slow death that began in 2015.
That’s when state officials began undermining the coordinator.
…The Upper Big Sioux River Watershed Project was South Dakota’s successful effort to collaborate with producers primarily to clean up Lake Kampeska and Lake Pelican.
…The project went from being a model to a pariah during the week of Aug. 17, 2015. A new 3,400-head dairy had been proposed just northeast of Watertown.
“My concern is water quality, and I think that’s most people’s concern” Mayor Steve Thorson said at a city council work session that day, a Watertown Public Opinion story reported. “When there is a 2-or 3-inch rain, where does that water go?”
Watershed Coordinator Roger Foote’s career spiraled down when he truthfully replied to Thorson.
“There are already 46 existing feeding operations in the watershed area,” he said. “The state does an annual inspection and that’s it. Unless someone files a complaint, that’s it.”
He noted that dairies generate a huge amount of manure that could potentially affect water quality.
Foote dug his hole deeper two days later when he attended a “Public Informational Meeting on Confined Mega Dairies in the Watertown/Codington County Area” at the Watertown Event Center. It was sponsored by opponents to the proposed Waverly dairy.
…Foote told the truth, saying that large, confined animal operations could cause water pollution.
…The South Dakota Department of Agriculture was livid at Foote, as was then-Gov. Dennis Daugaard. Ultimately, the childish anger and retaliation against Foote would be conducted by the Department of Environment and Natural Resources.
I was chairman of the South Dakota Board of Water and Natural Resources at the time, which annually allocated the federal money spent on watershed projects. I had a ringside seat to the retribution.
Watertown requested $511,863 to continue the project through 2019, but vindictively the state cut it to $200,000 and made clear that no money could be used to pay Foote’s salary.
Funds were restricted to programs unpopular with producers and the state then blamed Foote for not being able to spend it.
State officials continued to squeeze the project until Foote announced late last year he was retiring in April 2022. He knew the state would never forgive him and continue to sabotage the project [Brad Johnson, “Big Sioux River Watershed Project Dead, New Effort Won’t Protect Local Lakes,” Watertown Public Opinion via Yahoo, 2022.08.26].
The state prefers not to discuss the matter:
The state’s agriculture and natural resources department refused a request to interview Barry McLaury, the state administrator of the Watershed Protection Program [Haiar, 2022.08.26].
The merger of the Upper Big Sioux Watershed Project into the Northeast Glacial Lakes Watershed Project smells like the merger of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources into the Department of Agriculture: if any entity has the potential to get in the way of unfettered expansion of crony-industrial agriculture, state government will bury that entity in an agency more amenable to the business-über-alles agenda. Defunding and ultimately eliminating Foote’s position removes one more public advocate for conservation who might remind voters that state-subsidized CAFOs bring costs with their benefits.