On ag pollution, state’s carrot doesn’t work and the stick is a twig

February 16, 2023 4:26 pm
Cattle near Stoneville, South Dakota, on July 21, 2021. (USDA Photo by Lance Cheung)

Cattle near Stoneville, South Dakota, on July 21, 2021. (USDA Photo by Lance Cheung)

Department of Agriculture and Natural Resources (DANR) Secretary Hunter Roberts confirmed what long has been known about South Dakota during a Jan. 19 briefing before a legislative committee.

South Dakota gives only lip service to controlling agricultural pollution.

In a broad discussion, Roberts told the House Ag and Natural Resources committee that financial efforts to entice producers to protect river and stream banks with buffer strips had failed. A report on the herbicide Dicamba followed.

Grassy buffer strips, Roberts explained, are designed to keep pollutants from “the poor practices that are tough on water quality” away from streams and rivers. But the state’s incentive is not lucrative enough, so essentially, the bribe must grow. 

Roberts characterized the additional money as carrots to make producers do what normal people would expect – quit polluting the water. 

The use of carrots implies the state also carries a stick, but it’s more like a twig.

Roberts said as much. 

“We have dozens of these facilities that are within a mile of the Big Sioux River or a tributary and they’re not managing their waste,” Roberts said. “So, if you have 500 head that you’re feeding in a feedlot and you’re not managing your waste, and they’re within a mile of the Big Sioux, the chances that manure ends up loading in the river are pretty high.”

Actually, there are hundreds, not dozens of such facilities polluting the state’s rivers and streams. DANR, sometimes referred to as the Department of Ag and No Rules, has internal reports gathering dust that have identified scores of medium and small feedlots that need cleanup. 

One map marking these facilities looks like a piece of paper on a well-used dartboard.

Throwing a few million at buffer strips makes it look like South Dakota cares, but it doesn’t.

Just look at what The 2022 South Dakota Integrated Report for Surface Water Quality Assessment said.

The state has studied the majority of its stream and river segments and “78.2% did not support one or more beneficial uses.”

The cause? “Similar to previous reporting cycles, nonsupport for fish life uses was caused primarily by total suspended solids from agricultural nonpoint sources and natural origin. Nonsupport for recreational uses was primarily caused by Escherichia coli contamination from livestock and wildlife contributions.”

It’s a similar story for the state’s lakes, but thanks to a recent decision by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to lower the standard for mercury pollution, the pollution blame can be shifted from agriculture to mercury. 

The 2022 report said, “The primary cause for nonsupport in lakes is due to mercury in fish tissue.”

Earlier reports, specifically the 2012 report said, “Similar to previous reporting periods, nonsupport for fishery/aquatic life uses was caused primarily by total suspended solids (TSS) from agricultural nonpoint sources and natural origin. Nonsupport for recreational uses was primarily caused by fecal coliform and Escherichia coli (E. coli ) contamination from livestock and wildlife contributions.”

Interesting how we hide our pollution sources.

Roberts also talked about Dicamba, a controversial herbicide sprayed on soybeans. Lawsuits abound across the country as the chemical is easily swept beyond its intended target. The chemical is designed for a genetically modified soybean plant that is resistant to the chemical. All other plants that aren’t welcome in a soybean field are killed.

The problem is that the chemical can drift onto neighboring fields, killing nonresistant soybeans and other unintended targets.

Roberts told the committee the state intended to move up its spray deadline to June 20 as later dates tend to become dryer allowing greater drift.

He said DANR annually fields hundreds of complaints from angry people who have had their fields damaged by airborne July spray.

This brought pushback from some Ag Committee members who use the spray on their crops. There was discussion about “bad actors” who misapply Dicamba and professional applicators who spray during inappropriate weather because of impending deadlines. Such actions harm other producers and the public in general. 

Where is DANR’s stick when all this pollution occurs? Nowhere to be found.



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Brad Johnson
Brad Johnson

Brad Johnson is a Watertown real estate appraiser and journalist whose previous career was as a Colorado newspaper reporter and editor. He has been writing regularly appearing opinion columns for at least 20 years.