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25,000-acre CREP program looks to improve water quality, recreation access in Big Sioux watershed

Responding to soil erosion and nutrient flows that have led to deteriorating water quality in the Big Sioux River, several South Dakota nonprofits and agencies are looking to work with producers to improve wildlife habitat, recreation and water quality in the Eastern part of the state.

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Lake Alvin, in Lincoln County, empties via Nine Mile Creek into the Big Sioux River. The Big Sioux River watershed CREP hopes to build up a buffer of permanent vegetation around streams like Nine Mile Creek in hopes of improving water quality in the system.
Forum News Service file photo
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SIOUX FALLS, S.D. — A coalition of agencies and nonprofit organizations in South Dakota has launched a Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program in the Big Sioux River Watershed that hopes to expand wildlife habitat and improve water quality.

According to a report on the project by the Farm Service Agency, the state portion of the cost over 15 years, assuming full enrollment and no changes to incentive structures, would be $22.2 million.

“We think it’s a win-win program,” said Matt Morlock, the South Dakota assistant director of Pheasants Forever, a nonprofit partner helping the South Dakota Game, Fish & Parks Department with producer outreach. “Producers will get compensated well for moving environmentally-sensitive, low-production land into different usages. And then the public has access to more hunting and fishing opportunities.”

The program is modeled closely after the successful James River Watershed CREP, which has registered approximately 80,000 acres since its inception in 2009 and significantly expanded breeding grounds for pheasants, ducks and other waterfowl, according to the GF&P Commission, which spearheads both initiatives.

Like the dozens of CREP projects nationwide, the Big Sioux River Watershed initiative is a federal-state cost share built atop the basic Conservation Reserve Program, the federal conservation program funded in the Farm Bill. Producers would sign CRP contracts and receive an additional CREP incentive on top of that contract.

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The program will start by enrolling up to 25,000 acres of the 3.8 million-acre watershed into 10- to 15-year contracts, which will allow for planting permanent vegetation like grasslands or herbs.

Map of water system.
A map of eligible streams for developing buffer strips in the Upper Big Sioux River watershed.
Contributed / Game, Fish and Parks Commission

In the interest of reducing the amount of sediment and nutrients entering the hundreds of bodies of water that enter the Big Sioux River, the program will look to prioritize lands that act as a buffer to certain streams in the water system. Enrolling these buffer areas come with certain strings attached, such as a pause on haying from May 1 through August 1 to allow for waterfowl reproduction.

Lands entered into contracts under the watershed initiative will become public for recreational access year-round, expanding convenient hunting and fishing options for the bulk of the state’s population.

“We have talked about a Big Sioux River watershed CREP in South Dakota for at least a half-dozen years,” Tom Kirschenmann, the Director of Wildlife for GF&P, told the Appropriations Committee, told the Interim Appropriations Committee on Nov. 10. “Mainly because of water quality issues and the lack of habitat over on the eastern side of the state. But also that's where a major proportion of our population in the state resides, and providing those additional hunting opportunities would be a high quality-of-life aspect that we could add.”

Higher crop prices could mean increased costs, lower producer interest

The tension between crop prices and interest in non-working land programs like CRP is a simple economic reality. And, while the supposed solution to this issue is the enrollment of less-productive land, overall enrollment in general CRP continues to decline, partially due to crop prices as well as policy factors like lower total acreage caps and more stringent bidding requirements.

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South Dakota Farm Bureau President Scott VanderWal
Contributed / SDFB

In September 2012, there were nearly 740,000 total CRP contracts nationwide covering nearly 30 million acres. Ten years later, there are 560,000 contracts representing 22 million acres.

“Prices have come up and in a lot of cases, it’s more profitable to go ahead and farm it,” said Scott VanderWal, president of the South Dakota Farm Bureau. “At the same time, they've been raising the CRP rental rates, which we don't really like because the government's competing with farmers and ranchers for land.”

The Big Sioux CREP, however, avoids some of these downsides. For one, South Dakota is adding premiums of at least 20% and up to 30% on top of CRP rental rates. In addition, it’s a continuous program focused on specific areas in the state, which means farmers don’t have to bid on a finite pot of federal money.

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After nearly a year of outreach through media, conferences and one-on-one meetings with landowners, the opportunity for program signups began Nov. 1. No acreage has been signed up as of Nov. 17, but GF&P stresses there is interest from producers and agreements would be coming “within days.”

At the Interim Appropriations Meeting last week, Bill Smith, the director of the Division of Resource Conservation & Forestry in the South Dakota Department of Agriculture and Natural Resources, partially blamed the lack of signups on incentives not entirely keeping up with crop prices.

“When we rolled things out crop prices were starting to go up, and so were rental rates,” Smith said. “And the overwhelming message from our committee members was our incentives were not high enough. So one of the things we're doing is we're working with GF&P to try to find what level those incentive rates should be.”

The major question is how much higher the state can push these incentives. Kirschenmann said new habitat programs like the Big Sioux CREP have been made possible in part due to the habitat stamp, which was rolled out in 2020 to “fund wildlife habitat developments and public access improvements.”

However, as of Oct. 30, total purchases of the stamp this year have fallen by around 2.5% compared to the same time last year, meaning the agency has about $100,000 fewer dollars to expend toward the goal of developing habitat and recreational areas.

Funding will also come from a 2021 bill appropriating $3 million to the cleanup of the Big Sioux River as well as some private sources, GF&P said.

Prioritizing marginal land, environmental outreach key to program success

One aspect of the Big Sioux River CREP that may make it better able to sidestep higher crop prices than other non-working land programs is the focus on enrolling lands as part of the state’s Riparian Buffer Initiative, which includes lands under 120 feet from the edge of eligible bodies of water in the river system. Though the final total may vary, project leaders say the hope is about 20% of total enrolled acreage will sit in these buffer areas.

According to Morlock, these specific lands can often be difficult for farmers to work with.

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“If you're targeting these sensitive, low return-on-investment acres, it makes sense to use those in this program,” Morlock said. “I think producers with newer technology are doing a really good job of finding areas that are not making money anymore, and they're tired of putting high-cost inputs into them, so this can be attractive.”

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A map of eligible feeder streams in the Lower Big Sioux River watershed.
Contributed / Game, Fish and Parks Commission

In terms of the development of recreation and public access, GF&P told the Appropriations Committee that the enrollment of buffer strips in the James River watershed program has allowed for an expansion in pheasant and duck populations.

But outside of these barrier lands being key to waterfowl reproduction, permanent vegetation in these areas is a goal for environmental groups like Friends of the Big Sioux River, another nonprofit working with state agencies on the Big Sioux CREP.

“Taking land out of crop production and putting in grasses adjacent to the water bodies, it helps filter out sediment loss and excess nutrients,” said Travis Entenman, managing director of Friends of the Big Sioux River. “So there will be that benefit of water quality from just getting the CREP on the ground. But it’s also another conservation tool, with additional funding which helps conservation organizations to kind of compete with growing commodity prices.”

The benefits to improving water quality may also be economic. A DANR report added that water quality tests, particularly in the southern parts of the river system, had found E. coli and other fecal bacteria, likely stemming from animal manure. The report said building back up natural riparian barriers was key to keeping the river viable as a source of domestic drinking water.

“As the City of Sioux Falls relies on the Big Sioux River Aquifer for a portion of its drinking water, correcting these problems may have a future impact well beyond the current recreational and aesthetic problems,” the report said.

MORE BY JASON HARWARD
The open enrollment period, which allows signups for subsidize health insurance through HealthCare.gov, began on Nov. 1 and lasts until Jan. 15. On top of continued subsidies for individuals, a change to the "family glitch" could make thousands of families newly eligible for lower-cost coverage.

Jason Harward is a Report for America corps reporter who writes about state politics in South Dakota. Contact him at 605-301-0496 or jharward@forumcomm.com.

Jason Harward covers South Dakota news for Forum News Service. Email him at jharward@forumcomm.com.
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