CUSTER, S.D. – Critics of a city’s decision to release treated wastewater into a scenic and historic Black Hills creek say it could pollute the water and is being done without sufficient input from affected residents.
The city of Custer is upgrading its wastewater treatment system because of projected population growth and maintenance problems with the current system.
The upgrade includes building a new pipe to discharge the city’s treated wastewater into French Creek, downstream of Stockade Lake, and decommissioning the current discharge pipe into Flynn Creek.
The city hired a consultant, DGR Engineering, to manage the project.
A project environmental assessment says replacing the current pipe in Flynn Creek would be too expensive because of its length and elevation. Replacing the entire pipe would cost an estimated $7.3 million. An alternative option to replace only the section of pipe in need of repair would cost $3.76 million.
The assessment dismissed the possibility of placing the discharge pipe in Beaver Creek, due to environmental concerns.
“Local landowners and downstream tourist attractions would experience a stream of wastewater that may cause unwanted socioeconomic impacts,” the assessment says. “Therefore, this alternative was not chosen.”
The estimated cost of the two Beaver Creek alternatives is $3.25 million and $5.55 million.
The environmental assessment does not mention “unwanted socioeconomic impacts” in regard to the proposed French Creek location.
“The new force main route would result in lower elevation changes and a shorter distance, decreasing pumping costs,” says the assessment of the French Creek option.
French Creek plan
The French Creek pipe is the least expensive alternative, at an estimated $2.98 million. The pumping cost savings come to a minimum of $15,000 per year, according to Trent Bruce, the project manager with DGR Engineering.
But the city needed a state permit for discharging into French Creek, according to the city’s Wastewater Facility Plan. The plan says state officials spoke with the city’s consultant in 2019.
“The population in the area is very protective of their cold-water fisheries, so a socioeconomic analysis is recommended to be presented to the public if a discharge to French Creek is desired by the city of Custer,” the plan says.
The state issued a permit to the city on Jan. 13, 2021, that allows Custer’s treated wastewater to be discharged into French Creek. That permit allows for an ammonia limit multiple times what currently exists in French Creek.
Scott Kenner, professor emeritus of civil and environmental engineering at South Dakota Mines in Rapid City, said the data the state used to issue that permit is bad.
Custer’s planned discharge point is about 20 miles upstream from the tool the state used to measure the amount of water flowing in French Creek. The state used that data to see if the city’s discharge would be sufficiently diluted.
Kenner said the discharge will not be diluted enough because the rate of the creek’s flow at the actual discharge point is less than the rate 20 miles downstream where the state measured it.
“If they used the actual flow from where they plan to discharge, I think the discharge will go beyond the legal limits,” Kenner said.
While some Custer State Park facilities already discharge treated wastewater into French Creek, Kenner said the amount is much less than the amount Custer would discharge into the creek.
Project manager Trent Bruce said that, based on conversations with the state, “even if there was zero flow in the creek, the environmental impacts would be minimal. The design of this treatment system ensures the water meets the requirements for zero flow.”
Some locals feel sidelined
An analysis by the city’s consultant said local landowner input would be crucial.
“It is important to evaluate the social and economic impacts these limits for French Creek would have on the community and surrounding area,” the analysis says.
However, some affected landowners said around 100 people who live or own land immediately downstream of the French Creek discharge location were not directly contacted.
They say their concerns are the same as the reasons the Beaver Creek location was not chosen: “landowners and downstream tourist attractions would experience a stream of wastewater that may cause unwanted socioeconomic impacts.”
Maureen Kougl is one of the landowners along French Creek.
“How did the ‘public’ make this determination?” Kougl said. “Shouldn’t the local landowners living along the creek be part of this determination?”
The state published a notice of the project in the Custer County Chronicle weekly newspaper, and on a website for public notices. The Chronicle also published news stories about the project.
Critics say that’s inadequate.
Todd Konechne, a local landowner with a background in industrial engineering projects, said DGR Engineering did not communicate enough.
“No fact sheets, letters, or calls to affected stakeholders occurred,” Konechne said. “This occurred during the height of COVID. Over 90 people in the Lower French Creek area were not aware of this plan and strongly oppose it.”
Trent Bruce with DGR Engineering said the Custer County Chronicle articles were shared on social media by the paper.
“We went beyond what is required of us by the state,” Bruce said. “And we did meet with some locals who expressed concerns.”
Bruce could not recall if those locals were landowners who live immediately downstream of the planned discharge location.
Tourism and recreation
French Creek starts 5 miles northwest of Custer and flows for 62 miles in an eastward direction through Custer State Park before dumping into the Cheyenne River, west of Badlands National Park.
The French Creek Natural Area, a hiking, angling and horseback riding area, and the French Creek Camping Area are both downstream of the proposed discharge location.
Gold was discovered in French Creek during an expedition led by George Armstrong Custer in 1874. The discovery triggered the Black Hills gold rush.
French Creek attracts many anglers and hikers from all over the country, according to Mike Kintigh, a French Creek landowner and a seasonal park ranger with the state Department of Game, Fish and Parks.
Kintigh said he does not speak for GF&P.
“I see people swimming in or wading in French Creek all the time,” Kintigh said. “Flynn Creek and Beaver Creek have no tourism, zero, compared to French Creek.”
Hans Stephenson, owner of Dakota Angler & Outfitter in Rapid City, said in an email that French Creek is a good trout fishing spot.
“I have had several successful outings to French Creek below Stockade in the past three to four years,” Stephenson said. “I was surprised at the quality and size of the brown trout I caught.”
The city of Custer and its consultant say the treated wastewater will not negatively impact wildlife or water quality.
Project documents say, “This project will benefit the fish and wildlife surrounding the community, especially during dry years. During dry years, the effluent into French Creek may provide an additional water source for wildlife.”
But some are skeptical of that claim.
Scott Kenner, South Dakota Mines professor emeritus of civil and environmental engineering, is concerned for the health of French Creek.
Kenner said the discharged, treated wastewater will increase ammonia levels in the creek and pollute small pools of fresh water along the creek. He said that could result in dense plant growth and the death of aquatic life due to reduced oxygen levels.
“Another treated sewage pollutant that could hurt the health of the stream is phosphorus,” Kenner said. “And the state doesn’t even have a limit on that.”
University of South Dakota freshwater biologist Jeff Wesner said in an email, “Treated wastewater also has lots of other contaminants in it, like antibiotics, amphetamines, hormones, and other waste products of personal use. All of those things have been shown to harm aquatic life to varying degrees.”
The Department of Agriculture and Natural Resources did not detect ammonia in any of its seven French Creek 2022 water samples. Ammonia was detected in three of its seven samples at Flynn Creek, where Custer currently discharges its treated wastewater.
The 2022 state water quality report indicates Flynn Creek’s water quality is within the standards set by the state. Those standards are for “non-immersive” uses, like “limited contact recreation.”
Those are the same standards set for French Creek, despite neighboring landowner reports that it is used for immersive recreation, like swimming.
DGR Engineering project manager Trent Bruce said the consultant’s role in the environmental analysis is minimal. He said the state determines what needs to be done on the environmental side of things, and it did not require more than what was submitted.
“The Department of Agriculture and Natural Resources reviews all the project info provided by the city to determine the level of environmental clearances and requirements necessary to approve the project,” Bruce said.
Bruce said the Department of Agriculture and Natural Resources and the Department of Game, Fish and Parks were highly involved in the process. He said neither department had environmental concerns about the discharge.
Neither department replied to questions or interview requests.
Bruce said critics should not worry. He said the discharged water from the upgraded system will be cleaner than what is going into Flynn Creek today.
“The wastewater treatment plant, as designed, will allow for the city of Custer to adapt to stricter effluent limits in the future,” Bruce said.