PIERRE, S.D. — South Dakota's top water-surface regulator told a legislative committee that "just a handful" of the state's 850 permitted storm runoff sites, which are required by federal environmental law to be inspected, have been visited by state officials.

Kelli Buscher, the Surface Water Quality Program Administrator with the South Dakota Department of Environment & Natural Resources, revealed the lack of public oversight on potential polluters during a pitch for legislative approval of new fees on some 800 industrial sites who hold storm-water discharge permits.

Speaking before the rules committee at a virtual meeting on Tuesday, April 6, Buscher said she hopes the new funds will boost her team's capabilities, in part, to hire more staff and more effectively monitor runoff into rivers, lakes, and ground.

"We're doing less than 5% of the inspections that EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) requires us to do," Buscher told the committee. She added that according to federal rules, 10% of the total number permit-holders are to be inspected, meaning South Dakota would need to visit at least 85 sites.

After Buscher's testimony, Sen. Jean Hunhoff, R-Yankton, slammed the total number of regulatory visits as "not a satisfactory number."

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Buscher agreed, saying the lack of money in her program meant there "were a number of sites that we've not visited before."

"I would expect that these positions are filled ... when you show up for budget next January," said Hunhoff.

Rep. Kevin Jensen, R-Canton, also said he was taken aback by the low number, questioning whether the "cost" of completing the investigations — or "staffing availabilities" — prevented her team from visiting more sites.

"Staffing availabilities," replied Buscher, noting her agency within DENR had not been able to fill vacant positions, as the fees collected from the state's 850 license-holders no longer covered the agency's expenses to properly run the surface-water monitoring program.

According to the DENR's website, stormwater runoff can bring debris, dirt and even chemicals into waterways, causing potential "adverse effects on plants, fish, animals and people."

DENR spokesman acknowledged in an email to FNS the department "has not met the inspection goal," but added that "with the new fees in place, DENR will have the resources it needs to meet its EPA commitments." New fees begin next January.

With 1972's passage of the Clean Water Act, Congress required permitting for storm-water runoff at industrial facilities, from construction sites to meat-processers to landfills. South Dakota took over its own regulations in the early 1990s, but recent cost increases mean they've lost the ability to pay for the program.

Buscher noted "EPA changes" put her team in a place "where the fees no longer fully funded" the program.

On Tuesday, a spokeswoman for the EPA in Washington, D.C., did not respond by deadline to a request for comment.

Ultimately, lawmakers on the committee voted to approve the fee structure change. A state water-quality board had already given its blessing to the rate hike, which was first proposed by DENR in a separate piece of legislation passed in 2018.

Previous reporting has found elevated E.coli levels in Rapid Creek and the Big Sioux River, as well as higher levels of arsenic in the Belle Fourche River.

Last summer, Gov. Kristi Noem announced plans to merge the Department of Agriculture with DENR in order to "best meet the needs of the state and its citizens," causing some to express concern about a range of the department's functions, including its oversight of environmental protections.

A legislative attempt last month to express disapproval of the merger failed by a single vote in the Senate.