When it comes to the quality of tap water, Rapid City residents are in the clear.
But the same can’t be said for some small towns, subdivisions and private water systems surrounding the city.
In an analysis of more than 30 million state water records by the Environmental Working Group — a nonprofit organization that specializes in environmental research and advocacy — nine of the top 10 largest water quality violators in South Dakota were in Piedmont, Sturgis or Black Hawk, with the state’s largest violator residing just outside Rapid City limits in a small subdivision called Cedar Gulch II.
Originally developed by former state Sen. Gordon Howie, Cedar Gulch II has been in violation of at least one federal drinking water standard for every quarter since April 2014, with violations of the Safe Drinking Water Act stretching back to at least 2010, the analysis found. Radium-226, radium-228 and uranium were found in the well’s water, which provides drinking water to about 30 residents. Since 2010, Cedar Gulch II has amassed 102 violation points, more than any other state water system analyzed.
Violation points are accrued for exceeding federal/state drinking water standards and failing to monitor or report issues. The length of time that problems remain unaddressed is accounted for, too. Data compiled by the South Dakota Department of Environment & Natural Resources and the Environmental Protection Agency's Enforcement and Compliance History Online database were used in the EWG analyses.
John Stephenson, a resident of Cedar Gulch II since 2012 and president of the Cedar Gulch II Water and Sanitation District — formed by residents to address the subdivision’s well water issues — said all residents have installed water softener and reverse osmosis systems in their homes to decontaminate the water for safe consumption. He said the issues have existed since the subdivision and well were originally created in 2007.
“It should’ve been treated at the source by the developer,” Stephenson said of the well’s issues in a Journal interview, calling it frustrating when “as citizens, you have to build what the developer should have built.”
Howie told the Journal that he no longer has any ownership or interest in the water system at the subdivision.
“I know there have been problems over a period of time,” he said. “My understanding is that the system is in compliance.”
According to EPA and DENR testing, however, that is not the case.
In an effort to bring Cedar Gulch II into compliance, Engineers Without Borders, a nonprofit humanitarian organization, has conducted pro-bono engineering studies and assessments for residents investigating possible water sourcing and treatment options. EWB is researching possible water distribution and storage solutions, said engineer Jonathan Mulligan, who is leading the EWB efforts for Cedar Gulch II. Once that is completed, EWB will assist residents with grant applications. When asked about the cause of radium and uranium contamination, Mulligan characterized it as “just natural to the area.”
“They’re basically footing the bill,” Stephenson said of the EWB’s assistance. Still, Stephenson said the process has tested his patience.
“It’s a slow process. It takes a lot of time to work with the government,” he said. “Every time we’ve gotten to a point, there’s been legal hurdles. We’ve regulated ourselves into stupidity.”
The other eight area water systems with the most violation points are Terra Cotta Estates (Piedmont), Rainbow Water Co. (Piedmont), Shirt Tail Gulch Development (Lead), Oak Mountain Country Estates (Sturgis), Viewfield Rural Water System (Black Hawk), Spring Creek acres (Black Hawk), Owanka Rural Water System (Black Hawk), and Golden Valley Water Co. (Black Hawk).
Radium-226, radium-228 and uranium were detected in most of those systems, though the report does not detail the concentration of those contaminants. The EPA Safe Drinking Water Act’s limits for Radium are five picocuries per liter and 30 micrograms per liter for Uranium.
Shirt Tail Gulch Development, located in Deadwood, was also found to contain arsenic at around 10 parts per billion, near the legal limit. The national average for arsenic concentration is 1.33 parts per billion. South Dakota’s average is 2.86 ppb.
Sonya Lunder, EWG senior research analyst who worked on the report, explained that the water tests behind the data and report typically occur at the treatment facility of each water system. Testing for lead, though, occurs in consumer homes.
In Rapid City, the water system was found to contain chromium, radium-226, radium-228 and total trihalomethanes (TTHMs), which are formed when chlorinated water interacts with organic materials within the water system.
While all of those contaminants have been linked to cancer, Rapid City fell well below the average state and national levels for chromium and TTHMs and well below the EPA limit for radium-226 and radium-228. The data in the report was from testing from 2010 to 2015.
“Rapid City looks good, generally,” Lunder said in a Journal interview.
Dr. Scott Kenner, professor and head of the civil and engineering department at South Dakota School of Mines & Technology, said the groundwater in Rapid City is of high quality.
“We’re really blessed with a groundwater supply that is superior,” Kenner said. “It’s better than most, by far, and that’s the Madison aquifer.”
The Madison aquifer underlies Montana, North Dakota, Wyoming, South Dakota and Nebraska, as well as Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Manitoba provinces in Canada. Local communities including Rapid City, Spearfish, Hot Springs, and Wind Cave National Park in South Dakota and Gillette, Douglas, Sheridan, Buffalo, Devils Tower National Park, and the Wind River Indian Reservation in Wyoming rely on water from the aquifer.
Still, challenges remain in protecting the aquifer and combating TTHMs.
“TTHMs have been an issue ever since we started chlorinating waters,” Kenner said. Newer technologies to replace the use of chlorine and subsequent creation of TTHMs are in development, including using ultraviolet rays to disinfect water. Currently, though, the technology is still in early stages of development, making the cost largely prohibitive.
“We are a culture here in the U.S. where we don’t want to pay taxes, and we don’t want to pay for the quality of life sometimes; but to get the treatment and quality we need, it’s not inexpensive,” Kenner said. “We have to understand what’s that cost and what it costs to protect it.”
TTHM contamination isn’t just an issue in Rapid City, though. According to the EWG report, it is the most common contaminant found in America's water, infiltrating more than 25,000 water utilities for 281 million customers across all 50 states. The national average is 23.4 parts per billion; Rapid City’s average was 14.4 ppb.
Addressing the overall state of America’s drinking water, Lunder explained that though almost every water system is in compliance with state laws, almost every system was also found to contain contaminants above health guidelines. Water filters are helpful, she explained, but many filters don’t make specific claims about how they actually improve water quality, and most are ineffective at filtering out nitrates and fluoride. On top of that, consumers often forget to replace the filters, nullifying their effects.
Lunder advised contacting the manufacturer to understand a filter’s effectiveness before noting that women who are pregnant or nursing should be especially cautious, as infants are most susceptible.
In a perfect world, Lunder said, the onus of water treatment would fall on the utility, not the residents as has occurred in Cedar Gulch.
“In so many cases, removing these contaminants at the treatment site is more affordable, more effective and certainly more democratic,” she said.
In the future, Kenner noted that America’s consumptive use of water for things like watering lawns was a practice that would eventually need to curbed, if not eradicated. Scientists, government officials, and regulators will also need to continue monitoring any development near watersheds.
“We have to carefully watch, and how land use changes on the watershed,” Kenner said. “That’s a challenge. If its public land, it’s a little easier to regulate for the common good, but if it’s private land, how do we tell someone what to do?”
He concluded by stressing the importance of continued support for regulatory agencies like the EPA.
“We better be very thankful for the EPA,” he said. “There are a lot of countries that don’t even come close to the water quality we have in this country.”