PRINGLE | The FLDS religious sect's compound in South Dakota’s southern Black Hills was remarkably noncontroversial the past few years.
After the initial land purchase in 2003 and the hubbub around the early development, the place faded into the rugged and remote landscape of rural Custer County. Outsider gossip and curiosity continued, but attention from the media dwindled, boiling tensions with neighbors settled to a simmer, and compound leaders seemed to ingratiate themselves with some local officials.
So when the compound requested permission from state government to drill a third water well, its leaders might have expected a quick and quiet process. Things almost went that way when state analysts recommended approval of the permit.
Then the letters started showing up at a state office in Pierre.
“If Custer County P and Z is going to put its head in the sand,” said one of the letters, referring to the county’s planning and zoning office, “I guess it will take Pierre to do something before this turns into Waco, Texas.”
Waco was the site of a 1993 federal siege at a Branch Davidian compound that ended in the fiery deaths of 76 members of the religious sect.
The comparison was drawn by Linda Van Dyke Kilcoin, who identified herself as an owner of land adjacent to the South Dakota compound. Her letter is representative of the once-dormant feelings stirred back to life by the well application.
A legal notice of the application was required, including publication in this newspaper and in the Custer County Chronicle. A total of nine people or organizations responded to the notice with letters opposing the well. Those letters forced a future public hearing.
The letters run the gamut, from handwritten condemnations of the compound dwellers’ religious practices to multi-page treatises by federal bureaucrats concerned about an underground aquifer and about the possible damage the well could do to caves and rare plant species.
Permit would triple water capacity
Though the 140-acre enclave 15 miles southwest of Pringle may be reminiscent of the Branch Davidian compound, there is no formal link. The Branch Davidians were the result of a long-ago splinter in the Seventh-Day Adventist Church. The compound near Pringle is associated with the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, known as the FLDS, which split decades ago from the mainstream Mormon church.
FLDS members reportedly continue to practice plural marriage, and their former leader, Warren Jeffs, who is said to have married multiple underage brides as young as 12 years old and dozens of adult ones, is serving life in prison for sexual assault and aggravated sexual assault of children.
Warren Jeffs’ brother, Seth Jeffs, submitted the well application and is listed as the certified operator of the water system. In 2006, Seth Jeffs was convicted of harboring Warren Jeffs, who was then on the run from law enforcement.
The well permit would more than triple the compound’s total allowable use of the Madison aquifer from 94 gallons per minute to 300.
Seth Jeffs, when contacted by the Journal, has refused to say why the extra water is needed or how it will be used.
Neighbors critical of application
Among the nine letters sent to Jeanne Goodman, chief engineer of the state’s Water Rights Program, seven are from private residents and two are from federal government agencies.
Questions, accusations and anger about the compound’s secrecy typify the letters from private citizens.
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Toni Martin, of Rapid City, called the FLDS a “devious group” and said allowing the compound to get a well permit “with no substantial reason” would be “insane.”
“Why do they have locks on gates, a watch tower at the entrance, etc.?” Martin wrote. “Do the research on our aquifers; don’t be stupid and duped.”
Doug Lesher, acting manager of the Stone Meadow Ranch, said he runs an elk operation consisting of 29 animals and sometimes has bison.
“I am concerned that they will run the aquifer dry and I won’t have any water for my elk and buffalo,” Lesher wrote. (An analysis by the state Department of Environment and Natural Resources has found the additional well “will not likely have a noticeable effect to the Madison aquifer.”)
Dean and Delia Johnson, of Fairburn, wrote that they belong to a 96-square-mile, 60-member rural water association with 200 miles of pipe. Their association, the petition said, is permitted to draw 250 gallons per minute from the Madison aquifer, 50 gallons per minute less than what the compound is requesting.
“Water in western South Dakota is a very valuable, tenuous element,” the Johnsons wrote. “We are very concerned about overuse, misuse and abuse of this resource.”
Threats to rare plants, Wind Cave
In contrast to the broader criticisms leveled by private citizens, two federal agencies took direct aim at the four criteria the South Dakota Water Management Board will ultimately use to consider the application: whether unappropriated water is available from the aquifer, whether existing water rights would be unlawfully impaired, whether the proposed use is beneficial, and whether the proposed use is in the public interest.
Letters from the National Park Service and U.S. Forest Service cited ways in which their analysts say the proposed well would violate the four criteria.
Craig Bobzien, supervisor of the Black Hills National Forest, wrote that the proposed well, in combination with other existing and future uses of the aquifer, could harm a “rare warm water spring ecosystem” in the area.
“There are four rare plant species documented to occur at Cascade Springs and along Cascade Creek that do not occur anywhere else in South Dakota,” Bobzien wrote, adding that the Forest Service “is concerned that reduced water flows at Cascade Springs could adversely affect the survival and viability of these rare plant species.”
The most thorough attack on the application came from the National Park Service, which operates Wind Cave National Park about 13 miles east of the proposed well site. The chief of the Park Service’s Water Rights Branch, William Hansen, wrote a four-page letter Dec. 19 and followed it with a four-page amendment and 11 pages of attachments Jan. 15.
Hansen used per capita domestic water usage in South Dakota to estimate that the water rights sought by the compound would be enough to serve 4,372 people, 58 times more than the 75 people the compound lists as inhabitants on state drinking water reports.
In a point-by-point dressing down of the compound’s application, Hansen goes on to assert that:
- Pumping from the proposed well could increase the frequency and duration of dry periods in parts of Wind Cave, and "these impacts could significantly affect the cave forming processes";
- The compound has never supplied copies of well logs, pump-test data and water usage that it promised to give the Park Service when the compound received permission to drill its initial wells;
- And, the 2009 transfer of compound ownership from the South Dakota-registered corporation known as United Land Management to the trust known as United Order of South Dakota, for which the Park Service found no legal registration in South Dakota, means “it is unclear what the legal status of the United Order of South Dakota is under South Dakota law.”
Hansen called the application “wholly speculative” and wrote that the compound “may be seeking to appropriate groundwater for other than traditional domestic uses.”
Kilcoin, the neighboring landowner, offered the bluntest criticism of all.
“As locals, we know what is going on in there and we don’t want to see it expand,” she wrote. “We value our 12 year old girls in South Dakota. Help us!”