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Reviving the River

For centuries, humans have been living along the Big Sioux River, long predating its influence on the naming of our city. For much of that time, humanity existed harmoniously with the river and its waters ran clear. However, as time passed, the health of the Big Sioux River has been affected by the expansion of economic activities and agricultural practices. Travis Entenman, Managing Director for Friends of the Big Sioux River (FBSR), is leading his organization to become a driving force to restore the health of the river. Through education and advocacy, FBSR is working to usher in a renaissance for our beleaguered waterway. “We are giving a voice to the river,” Entenman said.

One of the most impactful strategies for improving water quality in the Big Sioux River watershed is adding buffer strips along each bank. Buffer strips are areas of native vegetation such as trees or deep-root prairie grass that extend roughly 100 feet beyond the bank of the river. “If the majority of the watershed had buffer strips, most of the issues we face would solve themselves,” Entenman said. “The river has a fun habit of healing itself if we just let it.”

The watershed, or the area of land that drains into the Big Sioux River, is a big place – roughly the same size as New Jersey. This vast area presents its own challenges with simply being able to understand what’s happening on the land that affects water quality downstream. FBSR is working to shed more light on the water quality issue and help devise solutions by thoroughly mapping and photographing the watershed.

The project, which started in 2022 with support from a Community Foundation grant, aims to give the public a better understanding of the often jargon-filled and data-laden field of nature conservation. FBSR focused on gathering the right equipment and completing training to be able to ramp up their mapping efforts. By combining satellite imagery, data from the United States Geological Survey, and FBSR’s own water testing data, they created an interactive online tool to help communicate the current state of the river. “The goal of this,” Entenman said, “is for the community to get this information in a way that makes more sense.” FBSR is also providing their tool to teachers who want to talk about the challenges the river faces in their classrooms.

“The river got to where it is because of the community, and it will get better because of the community.“

Travis Entenman, Friends of the Big Sioux River

Data is only one piece of the puzzle, however. Entenman says that it’s hard to get people to take ownership of water quality through charts and graphs alone. That’s why FBSR is gearing up to complete extensive photography of the watershed this summer. They hope that by providing the public with a visual story in addition to their data-driven narrative, they can galvanize greater community support around improving our river’s water quality. “The river got to where it is because of the community, and it will get better because of the community,” Entenman said.

Improving the Big Sioux River will prove imperative to the continued growth of Sioux Falls. The city currently gets roughly half of its water from the Lewis and Clark pipeline that brings water from the Missouri River. Another 47% of the city’s water is pumped from an underground aquifer, and the remaining two to three percent is surface water from the Big Sioux River.

Photos courtesy of Friends of the Big Sioux River

Entenman says that Sioux Falls’ allocations from the Missouri River and the underground aquifer are already being used at maximum capacity, so water needs from new growth in the city are met by increased usage of the Big Sioux River. But, taking the water from the river and treating it to be safe for human consumption is expensive. Tackling the pollution problem at its source is a long-term approach, but one that will pay off, according to Entenman: “We know what to do, we just need to do it.”

“We are proud to support organizations, such as Friends of the Big Sioux River, that are working to preserve and restore the natural world,” said Patrick Gale, the Foundation’s Vice President for Community Investment. “We see the importance the river plays, not only for the vitality of our natural world, but to ensure the vibrancy and enjoyment of the river for recreational and economic use for future generations.”

Entenman believes that support for improving the river and nature conservation as a whole will grow as the next generations start to become more active in the space. “The kids that we work with in high school and middle school and colleges are smarter than I am, and they care about these things,” he said, “And that gives me hope.”

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