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The recent blizzards and rainstorms that have flooded farm fields and decimated roads across South Dakota have exposed major weaknesses in the state’s rural transportation network and created repair bills that may strain budgets of small-town and county governments for years to come.
Some local officials say the heavy flooding highlights the need for fundamental changes to how rural roads are maintained and paid for. They say the future of the state’s agricultural economy and the safety of isolated rural residents could be hampered if rural infrastructure is not improved.
South Dakota is facing recovery costs that could reach into the tens of millions of dollars as a result of back-to-back winter and spring storms and the flooding they caused, most of it east of the Missouri River. Much of the expense burden will fall to sparsely populated counties and townships, entities charged with maintaining critical farm-to-market roads and rural infrastructure.
Local officials worry they may not be able to get things fixed quickly or at all. Many governments were struggling to maintain roads and bridges long before the blizzards and heavy rains of 2019. In Turner County, southwest of Sioux Falls, the cost to repair road damage this spring is expected to exceed the county’s total annual road improvement budget.
Rural roads, many of which are gravel or dirt and highly susceptible to water damage, form critical infrastructure for farmers, ranchers and rural residents whose work forms the backbone of the South Dakota economy. Without solid roads that can support multi-ton farm equipment, farmers can’t plant, fertilize, spray for pests or move crops and livestock to market. Rural residents cannot rely on those roads to connect them with paved roads, and emergency service providers also face challenges in accessing people in crisis.
“It really is a very serious economic problem,” said farmer Jim Schmidt, a Lincoln County commissioner. “The public and the people in Pierre are going to have to ask how they’re going to pay for this.”
The problem is being compounded by an increase in extreme weather events. On average, the state is about two degrees Fahrenheit warmer now than it was 1900. That means the atmosphere can hold more water vapor, which allows more rain or snow to fall during a single storm. Since 1991, South Dakota has averaged 14 percent more 1-inch or greater rain events than it did between 1900 and 1990, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
State officials are working on a request for a federal disaster declaration related to the flooding. The declaration would provide for federal assistance but will not pay the entire repair bill. That is bad news for rural governments — and residents — because some roads are likely to remain closed until money is found to fix them.
Counties and townships had 30 days to collect and submit damage estimates to state officials following the emergency declaration by Gov. Kristi Noem last month. The state’s total damage estimate will be available later this month, Department of Public Safety Spokesman Tony Mangan said.
Money woes will slow repairs
Part of the problem is that counties and townships have few options for raising new money when needed. Instead, they must wait for the value of the property in their county to increase either through economic development or higher commodity prices.
Since 1997, townships and counties have been restricted from raising property tax rates as they deem necessary. That year, then-Gov. Bill Janklow froze the property tax rate and restricted annual rate increases to 3% or the annual increase in the Consumer Price Index, whichever is lower. Some years, that resulted in no increase at all in the property tax rate. Meanwhile, the cost of services has increased in necessary expenses such as employee health insurance and maintenance of gravel roads.
The idea behind the 1997 tax reform package was to slow the growth of the property tax rate by giving the public K-12 school system more money from the state’s general fund. The plan worked. According to the state Department of Revenue, in 2018, property owners paid nearly $1 billion less in taxes than they would have paid without the property tax limit.
Schools still get the lion’s share, about 56 percent, of all property tax revenue. Statewide, counties get about 27 percent and townships only about 2 percent. Counties, with voter consent, also can charge a wheel tax of up to $5 per wheel. The tax can’t be more than $60 per vehicle. Counties get a portion of vehicle registration fees collected by the state and recently were given a portion of the fees collected on heavy non-commercial vehicles. If they charge a wheel tax, counties also can apply for competitive state grants from the annual $15 million Bridge Improvement Grant fund.
Townships can levy up to $.50 per $1,000 of the property value within their boundaries. Some counties, such as Hughes County in the middle of the state, don’t have organized townships and instead fund all road maintenance on their own.
Rural counties and townships are struggling financially because the value of property isn’t growing fast enough to cover the increased costs of doing business. Spending on public safety and criminal prosecution, mental health and employee health insurance all have outpaced the growth in property tax collections, a 2015 study by the Department of Legislative Audit found.
The result, in places such as Hughes County, is that projects have to be delayed. Former Hughes County Commissioner Tom Tveit said at least one paved road in the county, Grey Goose Road, hasn’t been resurfaced in almost 50 years. By state standards, he said, the road would be resurfaced every 30 years.
“It’s equivalent to a homeowner buying a house and not replacing the roof for 50 years,” Tveit said.
In 2015, revenue shortfalls led the Hughes County Commission to cut funding for the youth agricultural group 4-H. Two years later, the commission cut funding to the local library, which used the money to give free library cards to rural residents.
Several efforts have been made to give counties more options for raising revenue, most of them unsuccessful. During the 2019 legislative session, a bill to allow counties to charge a half-cent sales tax to fund courthouse and jail construction and maintenance was narrowly defeated twice on the state Senate floor.
Tveit, no longer a county commissioner, has pushed to reform the county revenue process. Meanwhile, counties will continue having trouble with roads because farmers are improving production.
“Yields have increased,” he said. “That means more traffic and heavier traffic.”
Warmer, wetter and more extreme
State Climatologist Laura Edwards lives in rural Brown County, on the western edge of the Prairie Pothole Region, a slice of glaciated geography defined by rolling hills and depressions that fill with water during wet cycles that can last decades. The area has been locked in a wet cycle for much of the last 30 years.
Lately, the rest of the state has started getting wetter, she said.
“We have seen a wetter trend all over the state,” Edwards said. “We’re getting wetter faster than most other parts of the lower 48 states.”
At least part of the wetter trend is due to an increase in the state’s average temperature. The temperature increase has mostly been seen in warmer evenings in spring and winter. Warmer air tends to hold more moisture than cold air. “It’s kind of like you’re loading the dice,” she said.
Being a little warmer and a little wetter has provided some advantages for South Dakota’s farmers. They’ve been able to get higher yields on corn and soybeans and more of them are planting those two high-dollar crops.
“Farmers are adapting to changes they see on the landscape,” Edwards said.
As the spring of 2019 has illustrated, there are also drawbacks to a warmer, wetter climate. The use of tile drainage in farm fields is one example of added expenses and creating access to fields can also get expensive.
While the number and severity of rain events can vary wildly year to year, there is a consistent trend of larger events over the past 30 years.
“What we see going forward is precipitation coming in big, extreme events,” Edwards said.
Overall, NOAA projects that South Dakota will keep getting wetter and warmer as the 21st century continues. The number of heavy rain and snow events also is predicted to increase, especially in the spring and winter, which long have accounted for much of the damage done to rural roads.
Counties face uphill climb
Turner County Commission Chairman Lyle Van Hove said he’d seen estimates as high as $3 million for the county’s share of repairs related to recent flooding. “We’ve got more damage than our total budget,” Van Hove said.
The east and west forks of the Vermillion River converge in the north end of Turner County near the town of Parker. The river is a typical prairie stream that generally flows slowly as it meanders through a mostly flat, grassy landscape. But in the spring, when snow melts and heavy rains fall, the river floods. This year the floods were particularly bad. Seven bridges are still closed.
“We’ve got more bridges than just about any county in the state,” Van Hove said.
Bridges are expensive to maintain and, in the case of Turner County, most of them are the county’s responsibility.
In Lincoln County this spring, there are four or five culverts on county roads washed out and four bridges that need repairs. One bridge, a historic truss bridge, was nearly destroyed by ice. Another bridge’s abutment, the piece that anchors it to the ground on either side, was scoured out.
Together, those bridge projects could cost well over $200,000, said Terry Fluit, county highway superintendent. All told, Fluit said, storm damage on Lincoln County roads is expected to reach $600,000.
“We haven’t seen anything like this for years,” he said.
Still, Fluit said, Lincoln County is more fortunate than others. There’s a rapidly growing residential and commercial property tax base in the northern end of the county, Fluit said, so there’s money to go around at least for county roads.
There is no way Turner County can get its roads back to pre-storm condition anytime soon without state and federal assistance, said county Emergency Manager Brad Georgeson.
“Some township roads are going to be closed indefinitely,” he said.
Townships, farmers left in limbo
In Brantford Township in northwestern Hamlin County, rain and snow caused $78,000 worth of damage and officials hope they can get some state and federal money to help make repairs.
The township board has a 2019 budget of about $106,000. The $78,000 in storm damage represents nearly three-quarters of the township’s yearly budget. A dozen or so culverts that were damaged but already scheduled for regular maintenance this year are ineligible for state or federal disaster assistance. Brantford Township Clerk Dustin Leiseth said he expects the township will get between $40,000 and $50,000 in disaster aid.
There are 13 townships in Hamlin County and each one was assessing storm damage to their roads through March and April. Leiseth said he expects the townships to ask for more than $1 million in disaster aid. The county government, he said, likely will ask for another million.
Leiseth said his township isn’t as bad off as others. A farmer by trade, Leiseth has served on his local township board for a decade and currently is president of the South Dakota Association of Towns and Townships. While the Brantford township is in pretty good financial shape, there are many townships that aren’t.
“There’s a huge disparity in finances township to township,” Leiseth said.
Some townships don’t have money on hand to repair roads and culverts suddenly washed out by flooding or any natural disaster. Many townships and a few counties are then forced to delay scheduled maintenance to pay for repairs from storm damage.
State disaster declarations allow state agencies such as the South Dakota National Guard and Department of Corrections to help clear snow or build flood barriers. The declaration also opens up the state’s emergency fund for disaster recovery efforts such as road repairs. For a month after the emergency declaration, counties and townships assessed their storm-related damages and submitted information to the state to get reimbursements for repairs from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
Another township that submitted a request for assistance was Pleasant Township in southwestern Lincoln County. Pete Fahlberg, a township supervisor, said his township is doing OK financially because it had some money set aside for emergencies. But the rain keeps falling and the township’s roads haven’t dried out.
“We’ve just been kind of spinning our wheels,” Fahlberg said.
Meanwhile, farmers still need to get cattle and pigs fed or moved to market. They’re driving on soggy, weak roads causing more damage and sometimes getting stuck. Fahlberg said he’s shifted one of his farm tractors to use as a tow truck. He hasn’t been able to get any farm work done and hasn’t risked trying to take any of his stored grain to market.
“A lot of the activity in the township can’t wait,” Fahlberg said. “You can’t just call a halt.”
The county-maintained paved roads are in better shape, mostly. County Highway 103 on the west side of Lennox in Lincoln County was closed May 6 because a culvert washed out. It cut a 3-foot gash through the road, one of the few rated for heavy trucks that deliver steel to Koyker Manufacturing, a Lennox company that builds tractor accessories.
In neighboring Turner County, more county and township roads are closed to heavy traffic than are open. Georgeson said he’s been working with the county’s 18 townships to assess flood and snowmelt damage for the last two months. The situation is bleak.
“It’s been nearly impossible for farmers to access and evaluate their fields,” Georgeson said.
The wet spring is bad enough said Terry Sestak, who raises corn, soybeans and alfalfa in addition to finishing cattle near the town of Tabor in southeast South Dakota a few miles north of Lewis and Clark Lake. His feedlot is a knee-deep morass of mud and water, which slows the weight gain of his 50 to 60 cattle. Each animal can be worth more than $1,000. Delaying their arrival to the market is costly, he said.
All of his fields are too saturated for farm work, Sestak said.
“I should have been planting a week ago,” He said.
Sestak said he’s got until May 20 to get corn in the ground. If he can’t plant on time, he may have to do some preventive planting with an eye toward collecting on crop insurance.
“It’s great when you have it,” Sestak said of crop insurance. “But you don’t want to use it.”
According to the USDA, the week ending May 5 had 1.6 days suitable for field work. Last year, during roughly the same week, there were 5.3 days suitable for field work. On the bright side, as of May 2, no part of South Dakota was found to be in drought, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor.
Large swaths of the state, about 37 percent in all, have an overabundance of water in the topsoil, according to the drought monitor. Subsurface moisture was in surplus across 27 percent of the state at the beginning of May. Just about every creek and river along Highway 14 between the James River Valley and the Minnesota border was out of its banks May 7 and showing no sign of receding anytime soon.
In 2018, about 5 percent of the state’s corn crop had been planted by May 5. This year, though, the USDA hasn’t been able to survey any farmers who have planted corn. The story isn’t much different for soybeans, though they are usually planted later in the spring.
About Nick Lowrey
Nick Lowrey, based in Pierre, S.D., is an investigative staff reporter for South Dakota News Watch. A South Dakotan for more than 20 years, he is a former editor of the Pierre Capital Journal.