Tuesday, May 22, 2018
More from MPR


Indian reservation running out of water
Larger view
Water samples show treated water on the left and river water on the right. (MPR Photo/Cara Hetland)
Water is a big deal in South Dakota. Most of the state's population uses rivers as a drinking water source. Not all rural communities have clean, safe drinking water. One Indian reservation in north-central South Dakota is about to run out of water. Five years of drought is making it harder and harder to pump water. The tribe needs its intake pipe moved to deeper water. It also needs to improve the quality of drinking water, for health reasons. Officials are asking for millions of dollars to avoid a crisis.

Eagle Butte, S.D. — The Cheyenne River Sioux Reservation is three-million acres of land with very little water. People are spread out everywhere with the terrain rugged and rocky. Rolling river valley hills are covered in sweet yellow clover. It's an area better suited for cattle than crops.

About 22 miles from the largest community of Eagle Butte is the Cheyenne River. That's where the tribe gets its drinking water. Leo Fisher, executive director of the Mini-Waste Water Project, looks out at the river to where the intake pipe sits.

"When the wind blows you can see it's a little darker right here. It looks like chocolate milk across here. That's the water we have to treat when we get it up to the treatment plant," says Fischer. "This is like a kid at home would stomp in a mud puddle - that's what it looks like when it comes in," he says.

Water levels in the Cheyenne River have dropped drastically because the area is in the fifth year of a drought. Fisher says there's less water above the intake pipe and silt is filling in beneath it. That's what makes the water muddy.

Earlier this year the tribe projected there wouldn't be enough water to pump by this August. Now projections have bought them more time -- next August.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is responsible for providing the tribe with its drinking water. Thirty years ago water pipes were installed to every home on the reservation. In order to save money, smaller pipes were used. Now the old pipes break easily and need to be replaced. That's 14,000 miles of buried pipe that should be dug up, and swapped out for newer, larger pipelines.

Tribal attorney Rebecca Kidder says if the reservation runs out of water, distribution will be a nightmare.

"It's not like you can set up a water distribution point in the parking lot of Wal-Mart and it's going to be good," says Kidder. "We have a 78-percent unemployment rate. And 96 percent of the families working live below the poverty level and they're scattered in an area the size of Connecticut. Combined with the fact that we only have two paved roads and the rest of them are gravel or dirt," she says.

Kidder says the corps is working on a temporary fix. The plan is to move the intake pipe 12 miles upstream where the Cheyenne River drains into the Missouri River. It'll cost about $14 million. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers will pay a little more than $8 million. The tribe needs to come up with the rest. Several federal agencies have pledged money and according to Rebecca Kidder construction could begin this summer.

But it won't be all that easy. Because of the rugged terrain they need to build 12 miles of new road in order to get construction materials to the river. Kidder says it'll take about a year just to get the new intake put in place - and that's cutting it close.

"But what if we run out of water in the middle of winter?" Kidder questions. "Trying to put in temporary water in the winter or trying to truck in water on dirt roads when we have blizzard conditions routinely. It's going to be a serious crisis," she says.

The tri-county water system serves 17 communities. That's water for six different school districts, a jail and a hospital.

Wayne Ducheneaux, director of the Cheyenne Sioux Housing Authority, says moving the intake pipe will only solve part of the tribe's problem. Ducheneaux says the distribution system will still need an upgrade. He says there's a need for 800 new houses on the reservation. Houses he says there's money to build. But there isn't enough capacity in the existing water system to serve anyone else.

"And the system is at capacity. I can't put a new house in any of my outlying communities without taking one out, says Ducheneaux.

He says people can no longer haul water home from the river for drinking and washing like they did when he was a boy.

"When I was a kid we hauled in a 50 gallon barrel right out of the river and dipped it full and hauled it home and used it for everything," says Ducheneaux. "When we'd have a rain shower in the summer time mom would hand us a bar of soap and send us outside to take a shower. Just because you had to conserve water," he says.

Ducheneaux says the water that comes into homes now does not meet EPA quality standards. That's because as the water levels drop in the Cheyenne River, the water quality gets worse. More chemicals need to be added at the treatment plant to clean it up. Runoff in the Cheyenne River includes mineral shavings from the Black Hills gold mines. If the intake pipe is moved to the Missouri River it'll be a cleaner, healthier water source.

Tribal attorney Rebecca Kidder says drinking the Cheyenne River water has caused an outbreak of diseases. She has a list of the diseases people on the reservation suffer from. Seven-hundred people have lupus, brain tumors or Rheumatoid Arthritis. Elsewhere these are diseases that occur in one out of every 100,000 people. Kidder says the one thing constant in all of these people's lives is the water they drink from the Cheyenne River.

"You can't have every weird auto-immune disorder and cancer that's not real common in a population of less than 12-thousand people of people being surveyed at those rates and not see that there's got to be an environmental problem that's causing it," says Kidder.

Kidder says it'll take 20 years of testing to find the cause of the problem. She says the tribe doesn't have that kind of time because people are dying now. But Kidder says the situation only gets worse. There are six doctors to treat the 12,000 people on the reservation. They see an average of 50 patients a day. But in order to get more staff they need a new hospital.

"We're on the list to get a new hospital. And with that comes 180 new employees," says Kidder. "We don't have a cat scan here. Closest cat scan is an hour-half away. We don't have proper X-ray equipment. We can't get any of that until we get a new hospital constructed. If we can't have the water, we can't have the hospital," she says.

Kidder says even the tribe gets the cleaner Missouri River water to its intake system, there isn't enough water pressure to serve a new hospital. She says they're asking Congress for $388 million to fund a new distribution system. It'll take five years to replace all of the pipe to people's homes.

"We're stretched to the limit to deal with the drought that we're in. This is an agriculture economy and our economy is suffering terribly," says Kidder. "We need Congress to take this seriously and fund this over the next four years for a permanent solution," she says.

Kidder says the Cheyenne River Sioux tribe is trying to be self-sufficient. They're working to create jobs and better housing. But she says there can't be economic development without water. So it looks like the Cheyenne River Sioux will need to turn their back on their namesake, and look to the Missouri River for their future.