Rapid City’s Water — Past, Present and Future Local Perspectives

I sat down with Dale Tech, Western Dakota Regional Water System’s President and Rapid City’s Public Works Director, to ask him some questions about the water resources of Rapid City and western South Dakota. His responses provide a nearly complete picture of the water issues that Rapid City and the rest of western South Dakota are facing. 

According to Tech, he is just one in a long line of men and women who have fought this fight to ensure that the water resources of western South Dakota remain strong. 

Can you tell us a little bit about your background?

I’m the Public Works Director of Rapid City. I’m a registered professional and civil engineer. I’m also a registered land surveyor. Before being appointed Public Works Director, I worked for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers as a surface water hydrologist. I then worked for Pennington County as the County Drainage Engineer. After that, I worked for the City of Rapid City as the City Engineer. I grew up in western South Dakota. I was born in Deadwood and raised in Sturgis. During my career, I’ve had extensive experience with water resources. 

What do Rapid City’s water resources look like?

Rapid City was founded in 1876, partly because of the abundant access to water made possible by Rapid Creek. We have excellent access to surface water here in Rapid City, but we also have easy access to the Madison Aquifer. We’re positioned right on the edge of the Black Hills, so tapping into this enormous water source results in both plentiful and high-quality water. 

The groundwater of the Madison Aquifer is strongly influenced by surrounding surface water — that’s how aquifers get recharged. So, Rapid City is really blessed with two very strong and very interconnected water sources in both its surface and ground waters.

The people who have come before me — for the last 150 years — have done a fantastic job of ensuring that Rapid City keeps this high-quality water through the purchase of water rights and development of the water collection system that we have. 

Those systems that have been developed allow us to have the diversity of using both surface water and groundwater. I can’t take any credit for this. I’m just the lucky recipient of that hard work that people have done for generations before me. 

How have past officials helped secure our water resources? 

One major example of officials taking substantial and future-oriented action happened back in the 1970s. West Dakota Water Development District (WDWDD) applied for and received a future use permit for Missouri River water to be piped to western South Dakota — some day. 

Somebody from the City — I don’t know who it was — said, ‘Well, we’re going to do the same thing.’ So shortly after that future use permit was obtained, that representative from the City did just that. Because of this, the City of Rapid City has had a future use permit since the 1970s permitting us to take roughly 28,000 thousand acre-feet of water annually from the Missouri River. 

With these future use permits, you have to renew them every seven years to keep them valid. WDWDD did a wonderful thing as their renewal period was approaching and said, ‘We’re going to renew that permit, but let’s talk about why — why should we continue to have this future use permit?’ 

With that, they hired SD Mines to do a study. That study showed that with the growth and with the volatility of the climate, we could have serious issues with the water availability of western South Dakota in the future. 

That was really an eye-opener for a lot of people — me included. Because of the day-to-day operations, I had never had the time to really concentrate on a topic that far-out. So, I got involved shortly after that point — participating in the groups that were having these discussions. 

After the SD Mines report, WDWDD hired a consultant to give some recommendations for next steps. These consultants put together a report, with one of the recommendations being to establish a new entity for the purpose of organizing and pooling resources. 

Tell me about the new entity that was formed.

When it came time to start that new nonprofit — Western Dakota Regional Water System (WDRWS) — Rapid City said, ‘Yes we certainly want to participate in that.’ There was even a resolution brought to the City Council that said the City and the Public Works Director will be involved with WDRWS. 

WDRWS was established in 2021, and we’ve been able to make some pretty consistent progress. A part of that progress is thanks to the advice and guidance provided from other water systems like the Lewis and Clark Regional Water System. That water system and others have provided us with fantastic input about what we need to do to get from point A to point B. Because of that, we’ve been able to move at a somewhat faster pace.

One of the first things people usually ask about is the construction of the actual pipeline from the Missouri River to Rapid City. We have to think long term and that’s not a this year issue or a 10 year out issue; it’s a 20, 30 or 50 years out issue. But, we need to start preparing ourselves now.

The water resources in the Black Hills are a finite resource. We’ve made strides in our water conservation efforts in our community over the years, but with the growth in population, we’re putting a higher demand on our water supply. So we need to have a diverse portfolio of water resources, and Missouri River water absolutely needs to be one of those diverse resources. 

Why is WDRWS considering the Missouri River as a potential solution?

If you look at the water cycle, the runoff from surface water from not only the Black Hills but all of western South Dakota mostly ends up in the Missouri River. So it makes perfect sense for us to keep reutilizing that resource by piping it back here for beneficial use. That’s recycling at its largest magnitude.

The Missouri River is a huge body of water, and thanks to the Corps of Engineers building flood control dams, there are huge reservoirs on the river. That is beneficial to not only this project but all the other water systems in the state that utilize Missouri River water.

Utilizing Missouri River water is something we have to certainly investigate and participate in. There’s large interest from the surrounding communities. And it’s a very worthwhile endeavor. And if we can make it happen, I think that’s going to be integral for the next hundred years or more of western South Dakota.

We’ve really seen the kind of scenario we’re trying to avoid in California and the southwest U.S. over the last year — they’re running out of water and they’ve had to shut some people off. There’s no guarantee that the water will always be there for us. We need to grow smartly and conserve our water resources. Again, diversity really plays into that. If a pipeline doesn’t happen, we’re going to have to be extra vigilant about the resources we do have. 

Can’t we just keep relying on the Madison Aquifer?

There was a hydrology study conducted of the Black Hills back in the early 2000s that talked about how much water is available in the underground aquifers — primarily the Madison and Minnelusa. This study confirmed that there’s a fair amount of water available at these sources. 

But once you start over-utilizing those resources, there’s no guarantee that they can sustain that increasing level of use. Yes, aquifers recharge, but if we experience prolonged drought years and increased population growth, the possibility that those recharge rates won’t keep up is very real. 

I’m concerned about the other communities that don’t have nearly as diverse and high quality water that Rapid has. There’s a lot of land between us and the Missouri River, and I know they have a variety of water issues there too. To me, it’s important that the entirety of western South Dakota really consider this and do something about it. 

What can the average person do to help with this?

If you’re in a subdivision that has its own water system, your system can become a member of WDRWS. 

And for anyone who has an interest in good, clean water, this project — building the pipe, getting the water delivered to western South Dakota — that doesn’t happen without some very large federal dollars. So, talk to your state legislatures, talk to your federal delegation. Anytime you have an opportunity, make sure that you’re telling your elected officials how important this is to you.

I had skepticisms about this water crisis at first. Then I saw that analysis that SD Mines did for WDWDD — that really opened a lot of people’s eyes. Western South Dakota is vulnerable.

So I’m going to do my part. I feel that it’s a part of my duty as Public Works Director. Both personally and professionally, I plan to keep working on this. This started in the 70s and it was basically on pause up until recently. I think we need to keep this project going.