The Fort Randall Dam flooded over 34 square miles of Yankton Sioux reservation land and forced 136 Indian families off their home land. Now a few white folks are fighting to keep from being flooded out like Indians by a smaller hydropower project on the Missouri River.
Joshua Haiar reports that MidAmerican Energy and Missouri River Energy Services want to use wind power to pump 40 billion gallons of Missouri River water up a hill 20 miles northeast of Gregory into a reservoir. The stored water could then be released downhill through a new hydropower plant to provide extra power when demand is high. This renewable gravity battery would require flooding four square miles of private land, a half square mile of which belongs to David and Fawn Swift:
A hydro battery is an unwelcome addition to David and Fawn Swift.
The couple would lose about 320 acres of land to the proposed reservoir.
“We first got word of it through a letter in early spring, late winter,” David Swift said. “We could quickly see, as landowners, that there were going to be a lot of us that were going to lose a significant amount of land. And so we started the fight.”
The Swifts have helped organize others against the project. The group has decided its best bet is to stop the federal government from licensing the project [Joshua Haiar, “Concerns Raised over an Energy Storage Project Along the Missouri River,” South Dakota Searchlight, 2022.11.03].
Sharing the Swift’s concern is former legislator Lee Qualm, who cries eminent domain!
Farmer, business owner, and former South Dakota lawmaker Lee Qualm fears the project will use eminent domain – a legal process allowing land to be taken at fair value from unwilling sellers for major public works projects.
“There’s no way people will agree to sell their land,” Qualm said. “I’ve got friends, I’ve got relatives that have land involved in this, and they’re not interested.”
There is historical precedent for land seizures up and down the river. Thousands of Native Americans were displaced from their homes along the bottomlands when the dams were constructed along the Missouri between 1933 and 1964.
Any South Dakotan who supports the pumped-storage project is naive about what’s to come, Qualm said.
“You’ve got to have a mindset that you’re willing to give up what we have, as far as the view we have, as far as the river we have, all of this stuff,” Qualm said. “And you’re saying that it’s fine if you destroy our river and landscape to make electricity that will be sent clear out of the state” [Haiar, 2022.11.03].
Funny: when Qualm was in the Legislature, he had no problem with taking away property rights to support private poop pipelines. Qualm hasn’t offered much vocal support for landowners who are unhappy about the use of eminent domain to build oil or carbon dioxide pipelines. And the important difference is that while those pipelines offer private services to increase private operators’ profit while offering only indirect benefits to consumers at large, this proposed gravity battery on the Missouri would provide power directly to electricity users and reduce utilities’ reliance on fossil fuel-fired generators. Eminent domain should only be used for projects providing direct public benefits, and this Gregory County project would provide such benefits more immediately than any of the pipelines about which Qualm expressed no qualms.
The Public Utilities Commission wants no part in this debate over this public utility project:
Public Utilities Commissioner Kristie Fiegen said the department has been inundated with questions regarding the PUC’s authority over the project.
“The PUC does not have jurisdiction on the hydroelectric project because it is on navigable US waters and therefore federal law supersedes state siting law,” Fiegen said.
Meaning, the federal government authorizes the project – not the state.
…On Monday, the day the PUC issued its statement, David Swift said he hopes the state takes steps to protect landowners.
“Although Citizens Against Missouri River Pumped Storage Project acknowledges that the state doesn’t have jurisdiction over the project, we still believe the governor and other state officials should be looking out for the interests of the state and standing up for individual landowner rights,” David Swift said.
The PUC itself has not taken a stance on the project. PUC Fiegen said that’s because the law giving the federal government jurisdiction can change.
“If the federal law is changed and it gives states authority over projects like the Gregory Pumped Storage Project, the SDPUC will become involved,” Fiegen said. “Therefore, the PUC has no position on the project” [Joshua Haiar, “PUC to Opponents of an Energy Storage Project: Talk to the Feds,” South Dakota Searchlight, 2022.11.07].
Let’s hope the federal government keeps its wits about it (guaranteed for at least two more years with President Joe Biden at the helm) and supports this green energy project. Maybe the Yankton Sioux Tribe will open their homes to the Swifts and other reservoir refugees.