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SDSU researchers grapple with water management in small towns

Water management is a challenge for many small towns in South Dakota. Currently, SDSU researchers are learning what resources these towns need to effectively manage their water.

In 2019, record-breaking flooding, caused by frozen ground and heavy rainfall, wreaked havoc in eastern South Dakota. Damage costs exceeded $30 million. Repairing the affected areas pushed some towns, counties and townships to their financial limits. 
According to a 2019 article from the Argus Leader, Turner Township, located in southeastern South Dakota, suffered nearly $250,000 in water damages. The township’s annual budget? $70,000. 
“Small towns do not have the financial capacity to deal with significant events like this,” explained John McMaine, an ag and biosystems engineer for South Dakota State University Extension.
In most large to midsize cities, a team of engineers and planners are assigned to manage and plan for the water in their towns. In South Dakota however, most rural communities do not have a dedicated planner or engineer, leaving the area without a framework to effectively manage their water issues. Despite not having staff or capacity, small towns experience the same things larger cities do: floods and water damage. 
“That is kind of the impetus behind this project,” McMaine said. “What is the capacity of small towns to think about water? What is their role when it comes to water? And then what resources do they need? What capacity do they need?”
SDSU researchers are working to assess the capacity of small communities to deal with water. With funding and support provided from the South Dakota Discovery Center and the East Dakota Water Development District, the researchers are focused on understanding the variety of issues small communities in eastern South Dakota are facing in regards to water quality, watershed management, stormwater, water infrastructure and flooding. 
So far, the researchers, which include McMaine, Candace May, associate professor of sociology and rural studies, Jeremiah Bergstrom, landscape architecture lecturer in the School of Design, and Maryam Sahraei, graduate research assistant, have conducted interviews with various community members in eastern South Dakota and have studied the current condition of water resources in the region. 
As part of their ongoing research efforts, SDSU Extension hosted a Community and Water Symposium on July 26 at the Raven Precision Agriculture Center to share some preliminary results. 
Research efforts
Sahraei presented on the factors that the researchers found to affect water management in small towns. One of the key findings was that climate change is adversely affecting rural communities. Increases in temperature, more severe storms, droughts and flooding are leading to displacement and poverty for residents of these rural communities. Flooding is not only a major problem but is also one of the residents’ most pressing concerns. 
To illustrate this point, the researchers pointed towards 2019—the year of the flood in eastern South Dakota—when every single county required federal assistance to repair the damage. Rural communities suffered as cultivated crops were destroyed and public infrastructure was damaged.
“The flooding was washing away the gravel roads, which was a very big problem because farmers couldn’t move their vehicles and use these roads to get to their farms,” Sahraei explained. 
The flooding also can cause some public health issues, the researchers found. Flooded areas experience waterborne disease through the growth of toxic mold, and the mental health of those affected suffered as well. 
One of the biggest variables effecting water quality and water management is impervious surface. 
“Impervious surface means any hard surface that prevents or hinders the absorption of water into the soil, like roads, parking lots and even the compacted soil,” Sahraei explained. “There is a relationship between the amount of cover and runoff.” 
The researchers found that in eastern South Dakota, regardless if the town increased or decreased in population, impervious cover increased. For example, Highmore saw a decrease in population over the last 10 years but their impervious cover—developed area—still increased. Harrisburg saw a large increase in population and subsequently saw an increase in their developed area (impervious cover). 
“We are seeing these communities losing population, but yet we’re still seeing increases in impervious cover, because while we’re losing people—in some of these areas—we’re not losing impervious cover,” Bergstrom said. “We’re seeing some additional building without things being torn down. Developed areas are not being restored back into a natural condition.”
Even slight increases in impervious cover can affect local water resources, downstream stakeholders and storm-water flow. 
“Small towns have limited resources to deal with water,” Sahraei said. “And as they are affecting the water bodies and hydrology around them, we cannot ignore these small towns.”
Keynote speaker
As part of the symposium, the researchers invited Andy Szatko, stormwater program supervisor for the city of Omaha, to discuss his experiences with stormwater management and sustainable, efficient ways to manage water in the landscape. 
“We all live in a watershed,” Szatko said. “Water that flows from city to city comes from homes out here. Water from (Omaha) goes to Kansas City, and we all play a factor into it. Eighty-five percent of Omaha’s drinking water comes from the Missouri River so I want the city to do a really good job of keeping their water clean.”
Szatko discussed his experiences helping residents maintain compliance with the city’s MS4 permit as well as some projects that he has overseen. 
Next steps
As part of the project, researchers are developing a water resources toolbox for rural communities. The toolbox is still being developed but includes recommendations, like best management practices, and useable information, such as mapping and data interpretation, to provide rural communities with the resources needed to develop a framework for their own water-management strategies.