Rural Growth Brings Better Water to the Black Hills

Expanding service in South Dakota’s rural, rocky terrain presents economic and logistical challenges for young water system.
Rural Growth Brings Better Water to the Black Hills
New pipe lies on the ground where the Southern Black Hills Water System is expanding service to new customers. Rugged terrain has made development challenging and costly.

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In South Dakota’s southern Black Hills, where Mount Rushmore honors American presidents on one mountain face and the Crazy Horse Memorial graces another, Don Peterson’s job might be the most monumental of all.

Peterson is trying to get clean, quality water to people who, in 2017, still truck water to their rural homes or drink barely potable stuff. Peterson’s job is made harder by having to lay 12-inch pipe through the state’s oldest rock formations, boost water up and over mountainous slopes, and overcome the bureaucracy of a federal agency.

“We wouldn’t have gotten this thing off the ground except for the people who live here,” says Peterson, manager of the Southern Black Hills Water System. “Rural water systems are customer-driven. The customers are the ones who make this thing work. They are the ones who benefit.”

Digging in

The Southern Black Hills Water System is the second-youngest one in South Dakota. It was organized in 2004, about 30 years after formation of the first of 33 rural water systems in the state. It encompasses about 2,000 square miles in the southwest corner of South Dakota — running approximately 50 miles north and south, and 40 miles across — an area that includes such communities as West River, Hill City, Custer and Keystone.

Peterson moved to the western part of the state in 1985 and has managed the Southern Black Hills Water System since its inception. He’s seen the customer base grow to 365 taps. Today, he oversees distribution of 25,000 gallons of water per day and envisions a mature system providing 600,000 gallons daily to 6,000 individual customers. That will be the culmination of 12 phased expansions. “If we get there by 2050, that would be pretty good,” he says.

Why so long? First there is the land itself. It is a beautiful and rugged region that resists domestication. The area’s rocky terrain was formed a billion or so years ago and is infused with granite and other impervious minerals. In the first construction phase, an excavation machine, creating a 6-foot-deep trench for pipe, chewed through some rock at a pace of 1 foot per day. That was the exception, of course. On good days, the trencher progressed 200 to 300 feet.

The Black Hills topography is, of course, hilly. Engineer Ted Schultz of the civil engineering consulting firm AE2S pegs the variation in the system’s elevation at 1,500 feet. “That means the system needs a lot more pressure tanks, boosters and storage facilities to operate,” he says.

Rising above

With just 120 miles of pipe laid so far, the system already incorporates one underground reservoir, one above-ground reservoir, and three booster stations. Elevating the water in some places requires 285 psi of boosting power. Blizzards also pose challenges — the system lost power for five days in one storm — but the state funded the purchase of backup generators to overcome that problem.

The other obstacle slowing completion of the system is man-made. In 2009, the Southern Black Hills Water System applied for and was granted $43 million from a federal stimulus bill, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. What followed is the stuff of nightmares. After 6 1/2 years and three futile environmental impact studies that cost the water system $150,000, time ran out and the money was turned back to the U.S. Treasury. “It was a great disappointment,” Peterson says. “We could have done five more phases of construction with that money.”

The U.S. Department of Agriculture and South Dakota Department of Environment & Natural Resources are the system’s reliable funding sources. Phase 1 construction was completed in 2010 and cost $7 million. Phase 2 was completed in 2015 and cost $11 million. Phase 3 is underway with the utility trying to sign up clusters of customers south of Hot Springs and near the communities of Hermosa, Custer, and Edgemont. “There are good opportunities in front of Southern Black Hills,” Schultz says. “Opportunities are there to serve customers in high need of water.”

Targeting congregations of potential water customers is a necessary part of extending water through a region with relatively low population density. The eastern part of the state might have four to five customers per mile versus one customer per mile in the Black Hills. For the same reason, the system is acquiring smaller water systems, operating them separately, and hoping to build them out and incorporate them into one system. These small water systems are attracted to acquisition because summertime stresses them when millions of thirsty national park tourists arrive.

Hauling water

The rural system will always rely on groundwater as a source, Peterson believes. While irrigation systems for area farmers sometimes draw from dammed pond water, the Madison aquifer is the Southern Black Hills Water System’s source.

The Southern Black Hills Water System’s principal well was drilled in 1949 by a man searching for oil. Instead, he found an artesian water source a thousand feet underground that delivers 109 gallons of quality water per minute. Six miles away, a second well is being completed that taps into the same aquifer and is expected to deliver 300 gpm beginning in 2018. A second high-volume well will be drilled when the customer base grows.

Retired pharmacist Ted Wick is a native of eastern South Dakota who moved to the Black Hills 22 years ago. He drilled a well on his property south of Hot Springs on Cascade Road and draws sufficient volume to water young trees on his acreage. Drinking it is not a top choice, however, even after it is softened and filtered several times. Nine years ago, he became a board member of Southern Black Hills Water System and, now, he is chairman.

“Some close neighbors have wells like mine, but half a mile up the road, people have to haul water,” Wick says of his neighborhood. He is liable to encounter haul trucks on the road about any time of the day, every day. Some community systems sell hundreds of thousands of gallons of water each year to haulers, who download at coin-operated “water docks.”

Building a base

Wick’s neighborhood is one being solicited in this phase of expansion. He believes hooking onto the system should be an easy sale. “It is a matter of changing people’s thinking,” he says. “Some people on Cascade Road have been hauling water for 30 or 40 years. I think they will pick up on this opportunity. Most people know the necessity of water, but they don’t appreciate the value of it. To my way of thinking, $80 or so a month for water is a better investment than paying $120 a month for a cellphone or $150 a month for Dish. If you have to get by with just one thing, it would be water.”

The system has instituted an incremental fee system to induce people to sign up in advance so a large enough customer base can be accumulated to warrant running a line. A “good intention” fee of $150 is levied just to put a customer on the map. Once enough pins dot the map in a targeted area, construction begins and sign-up incentives really kick in. People who balk at signing up because they consider a rural water system to be, in Peterson’s words, “a pipe dream” pay dearly for their hesitation.

“When construction begins, each person pays $1,500 to become an actual water customer,” Peterson says, in addition to footing costs of running laterals. During construction, if unsigned property owners along the route see actual construction occurring and come out with check books wanting to be part of the system, then at that moment, they are charged $2,500 for the privilege. If a property owner waits until after the pipeline-laying crew passes his property, the fee jumps to $5,000.

“I have had some people pay as much as $25,000 to connect up late,” Peterson adds, which still is less than the cost of drilling a well that may or may not pan out. “Early commitment is a benefit for everyone — for the system and the customer.”

Funding growth

Seven years ago, a $900,000 treatment plant was built near the initial well. The water is of such good quality that the plant’s only function is to chlorinate the product coming out of the ground. A second treatment plant is anticipated near the second well, where a reservoir has already been constructed. Such capital investments are costly, and cost continues to cast a long shadow over the project.

Wick believes funding is the system’s next big challenge. “Borrowing money from the federal government makes a project more expensive, even when it is a low-interest loan paid back over many years. However, the state and feds are supportive if we can make the numbers work for them.”

Schultz concurs: “The next challenge the system is going to face is financing. That’s what I see. We can overcome the terrain. It is the financial part that challenges us.”

But Peterson is pretty sanguine about such financial obstacles, continuing to bank on the support of individuals and officials in the region.

“There is a lot of support for this, from mayors and town councils,” he says. “We have some antis, but the majority of people get excited when they see us coming their direction. When they see the trencher, that’s when people really get excited.”

Expansion hurdles go beyond geography

Building out a water system in a rural and scenic area can be a tense business. Environmental objections and fear of suburbanization put such projects at risk. The Southern Black Hills Water System officials know this well.

“One thing we face in western South Dakota is the U.S. Forest Service,” says Don Peterson, system manager. The Black Hills forest is the largest of three forests in the state. “When we cross their property, that’s when we get involved in environmental things.”

Actually, crossing the property isn’t the only time there’s pushback: Running a waterline along a highway right-of-way that bisects Forest Service property is enough to trigger a request for a study.

Southern Black Hills officials are reluctant to say too much about the relationship with the Forest Service for fear of cankering relations further, but it is a burr under their saddles. When the system lost out on $43 million from the federal stimulus bill of 2009 after six years of wrangling, part of the reason was Forest Service resistance. “When you are sitting across the table from a man who says we are going to dump a bunch more hurdles in your path — this is from someone whose salary we all are paying — it’s a difficult thing to stomach,” Peterson says.

Ted Wick, Southern Black Hills Water System board chairman, was also not pleased. “That cost us a lot of money and time, and to my mind, they never could really justify why they were doing it. I mean, this is water, not oil. Even if there was a leak, it would be water running down a ditch. My perspective is that some of those people just don’t want any more people moving into the Black Hills.”

System officials note that some fiber-optic and heavy power lines have been granted permission to cross through the forest land, so why not water? “In Phase 2, we sought
permission to cross along the path where a phone company ran lines,” Peterson says with some exasperation. “The Forest Service wouldn’t accept the environmental study that the
phone company did one year prior.”

Congressional support has consistently been there for the water system, and other federal agencies have helped. As the system continues to enlarge its footprint in the region, officials say they are hopeful the new administration will be more supportive. And, Wick adds, “I would say, if the Forest Service keeps holding us up, we may have to try to get more leverage from Congress.”


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