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Ag Dept., DNR Merger for SD Back in Spotlight

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Environmental advocates worry they'd see more pollution in South Dakota waterways if the state agency that regulates them is allowed to merge with the Agriculture Department. (Adobe Stock)
Environmental advocates worry they'd see more pollution in South Dakota waterways if the state agency that regulates them is allowed to merge with the Agriculture Department. (Adobe Stock)
January 15, 2021

PIERRE, S.D. -- South Dakota's governor is reviving her proposal to merge two state agencies, including one that oversees protections for public lands and waterways, raising concerns from environmental groups.

In her State-of-the-State address this week, Gov. Kristi Noem made mention of her idea from last year to combine the Department of Environment and Natural Resources with the Agriculture Department.

Noem said agriculture is the state's top industry and needs new ways to keep it thriving.

Chris Hesla, executive director of the South Dakota Wildlife Federation, called the merger a bad idea.

"The two organizations perform distinctly different missions and should be separate," Hesla contended. "The majority of the DNR's mission has nothing to do with agriculture, although the portion that does overlap primarily is [of] a regulatory nature."

Hesla worried a merger would weaken enforcement efforts for pollution from farm runoff. Some ag-industry leaders have expressed concerns as well, especially if future governors place a greater emphasis on protecting the environment.

But the South Dakota Farm Bureau backs the proposed merger, saying it would create efficiencies, as producers routinely work with both agencies.

Hesla stated his biggest concern is how a merger would affect the state's water resources.

He noted surface-water conditions are deteriorating, and agriculture has been a key contributor to climate-related issues.

"Agricultural pollution is a threat, and it's a worry," Hesla cautioned.

A report last year by the Department of Environment and Natural Resources said 78% of South Dakota rivers and streams are "impaired" in terms of water quality.

Under state law, the Legislature would have to authorize a combined budget for both departments to merge. That's expected to come up in budget talks this session.

Mike Moen, Public News Service - SD