West Dam funding bill dies in committee

Jason Ferguson

One day after deferring action on it, the South Dakota Legislature’s Joint Committee on Appropriations voted 16-2 to send HB 1209—the bill that would have allocated $3 million state general fund money to West Dam construction—to the 41st day, killing the bill.
The bill was sponsored by District 30 Reps. Trish Ladner and Dennis Krull, District 30 Sen. Julie Frye-Mueller and two others. The two no votes to kill the bill were cast by Krull and District 27 Sen. Red Dawn Foster.
“The governor’s number one priority is funding the new prison,” Ladner said shortly after the committee voted to send the bill to the 41st day. “Having said that, I have had conversations with (Department of Agriculture and Natural Resources [DANR] secretary (Hunter) Roberts and DANR’s first priority currently is to complete the repair of the Richmond  Dam (a state dam in Aberdeen). Custer West Dam is now listed as a hazard one dam and will move up on DANR’s priority list.
“Even though we didn’t get general funds appropriated to the project this time around,  we made good progress and we are definitely on DANR’s radar now. We will keep marching forward.”
Custer City Council alderman Todd Pechota, Custer County Emergency Management director Steve Esser and Trent Bruce of DGR Engineering all testified in favor of the bill, emphasizing West Dam’s importance to Custer both for fire suppression and flood mitigation.
Pechota told the committee if you were to draw a two-mile radius around West Dam, there is well over $100 million in structures.
“That’s private structures, that’s infrastructure, that’s businesses that are important to our economy,” he said.
Pechota told the committee West Dam is important during peak tourism season, when streets are packed and a large fire west of Custer would mean fire trucks having to come into the busy town to get water rather than stopping at West Dam.
“It’s going to create user conflict. West Dam alleviates most of those potential conflicts,” he said. “It’s critically important to the suppression effort, not to only the Custer Fire Department, but interagency fires. It’s important to the Forst Service, it’s important to the South Dakota Division of Wildland Fire.”
Pechota said the city was not asking for the state to pay for the entirety of the project, but rather, “a little bit of help to get us over the hump.” Pechota said the city and private individuals are willing to step up and help with funding as well.
Esser told the committee a Headwaters Economics study showed Custer County is 100 percent more likely to have impacts from wildfire to their property than any other county in the state, and 97 percent more likely than all of the other counties in the country.
“The importance of water sources during a wildfire is paramount to protection of life, property and public infrastructure,” he said.
Esser said the dam is crucial to both wildfire and structure fires response, and it saves the city money because fighting fire with hundreds of thousands of gallons of treated water costs the city money.
In terms of flood mitigation, the city and county have worked with Headwaters to develop a flood mitigation plan for both the city and county, and West Dam is one of the key components of the overall mitigations strategies for the flood mitigation plan.
Bruce discussed how the dam was recently determined to be level one high-hazard dam. That category of dam is one which is failing, and that failure could lead to loss of life.
Speaking in opposition to the bill was Blaire Tritle of the state’s Bureau of Finance and Management.
“We definitely understand the importance of this dam and the city’s concerns,” Tritle said. “However, this dam is owned by the City of Custer. It’s not a state- owned dam. The responsibility of its repairs lies with the city.”
Tritle said general funds should be utilized to repair state-owned dams, where the state holds responsibility and liability to keep structures in safe condition, before any such requests like the one the City of Custer was pitching is considered.
“As was previously mentioned, the city is working with an engineering consultant to determine the best course of action to repair the dam,” Tritle said. “Until that work is complete it’s kind of difficult to determine the best funding mechanism for the project.”
Tritle also said there are federal funding opportunities that should be explored and exhausted before general fund money is considered for the project, citing Federal Emergency Management Agency grants as well as a Bureau of Reclamation grant.
Later during the question and answer session, one committee member suggested the project could qualify for a Community Development Block Grant.
When Ladner gave rebuttal to Tritle’s testimony, she said the grants mentioned go in yearly cycles and as such are already spoken for, and are “extremely difficult to obtain and get funded.” She added the project does not qualify for some of the grants Tritle mentioned.
Ladner said a 2023 article in the Rapid City Journal reported the Black Hills generated spending of $1.1 billion between January and August 2023 and supported 20,577 jobs while bringing in $346 million revenue.
“Custer is a huge part of those figures,” she said. “If we simply ignore these figures, we run the risk of jeopardizing that significant revenue, especially if travelers don’t feel safe. Consider funding West Dam and keeping our second-largest (state industry) tourism industry active and vital.”
One member of the committee questioned why if West Dam first began to leak, why the city had not tried to take any action to solve the problem until now. Pechota said that wasn’t the case.
“After 2012 previous adminstrations tried to figure out what to do with it,” he said. “There were a number of things considered.”
As recently as 2018 the engineering for the project was done and it was ready for dirt to be moved if funding could be secured.
A video showing the flood of 2019 was also played for the committee prior to the beginning of testimony.
West Dam initially began to leak in 2012 after the outlet structure on the dam broke. The dam eventually lost all of its water and has sat in its semi-weed-covered, semi-boggish state ever since.


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