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Big drama afflicts little-known board

Stream-gauge fight fuels allegations of 'Wingnut' political takeover in water district

  • 9 min to read

For nearly three decades, a little-known local government body quietly collected taxes as low as a few bucks a year from individual property owners in Pennington County and used the proceeds to protect, conserve and promote the responsible use of water resources.

Then, in the words of one frustrated observer, “along came George Ferebee.”

In March of 2011, Ferebee got himself appointed to a seat on the nine-member board of the West Dakota Water Development District.

Since then, according to his critics, Ferebee has helped stack the board with conservative political allies — including some associated with a political luncheon group known as the Wingnuts — and has steered the district away from its intended purpose. Even since leaving the board, his critics say, Ferebee has continued to attend, influence and sometimes dominate the board’s meetings from the sidelines.

His influence rose to a new high-water mark last month when the board decided, by a vote of 5-4, to terminate an annual $14,785 contribution to the operation and maintenance of two stream gauges. One of the gauges is above Deerfield Lake, and the other is above Pactola Reservoir, and both belong to a network of dozens of stream gauges in the Black Hills that provide water depth, flow and volume data used by scientists, water managers, irrigators, anglers and water-sports enthusiasts.

The district had been helping to fund the gauges for decades, and the sudden reversal shocked and angered some dissenting board members and local water professionals and activists who view the gauges as central to the district's mission. They are now speaking out after several years of public silence and are organizing to argue for restoration of the funding during the next board meeting, at 6 p.m. Tuesday in the West River Electric Association office in Rapid City.

Besides the money contributed by the water development district, there are additional costs of $11,725 associated with the gauges that are covered by the U.S. Geological Survey, which operates and maintains the devices. If the district's share of the funding is not restored, the USGS will try to save the gauges by soliciting funding from other groups.

Septic studies seen as spark

Tuesday’s showdown could be the climax of a political melodrama that detractors of Ferebee, now a Pennington County commissioner, trace to the early 2000s, when the district began funding scientific studies that detected water contamination caused by septic systems in rural Pennington County. The findings prompted the Pennington County Commission to begin regulating septic systems in 2010, and thousands of rural property owners were soon required to have their septic systems pumped, inspected and permitted at their own expense.

Ferebee’s vehement opposition to the regulations — and his diagnosis of their adoption as a symptom of bloated government — motivated him to enter politics. He not only obtained a seat on the board of the West Dakota Water Development District but also won a county commission seat, to the chagrin of those who dislike the 77-year-old commissioner’s cantankerous style.

Meanwhile, Ferebee has openly defied the septic regulations by refusing to allow an inspection or obtain a permit for his own septic system on his small ranch in rural Hill City. Prosecutors charged him with violations of the regulations two years ago, but he is fighting the charges and the case is still pending.

Ferebee’s affinity for confrontation and extreme action has fostered anxiety among supporters of the West Dakota Water Development District, and some fear that his alleged takeover of the board will lead to a dissolution of the district.

But dissolution does not require a takeover of the board. It only requires petition signatures equivalent to 15 percent of the votes cast within the district during the most recent election for governor, and then a majority decision by the district’s voters in a general election.

If Ferebee and his allies have an endgame, they are not revealing it publicly. Ferebee did not respond to phone messages last week from the Journal and instead sent the following email reply to questions about the alleged insurgency.

“Thanks for the opportunity to respond,” he wrote. “One word for now: BALDERDASH.”

Some members evasive

The Journal attempted to interview all five of the West Dakota Water Development District board members who voted to end the district's contribution for stream gauges.

Nathan Gjovik did not respond to phone messages or an email but forwarded the email to the self-described “head referee” of the Winguts, former state legislator Bill Napoli.

Napoli sent an email to the Journal saying that the allegations of a Wingnut conspiracy on the water development board are laughable.

In a later phone interview, Napoli said the Wingnuts — a name the group claimed for itself after others applied it derogatorily — is merely a weekly Tuesday luncheon group at the Eagles Club in Rapid City where politics is the topic. Nobody is given marching orders, he said, although people who attend the luncheons, including many who espouse conservative political views, are encouraged to get involved in politics and run for office if they so choose.

Napoli said there are no “members” of the Wingnuts. But when he was read a list of the nine West Dakota Water Development board members, he recognized six as having attended Wingnuts luncheons. He also said several are associated with Citizens for Liberty, another conservative local political group.

Like Gjovik, some of the other board members who voted to eliminate funding for the gauges were evasive.

Robert Williams answered a phone call but declined to explain his vote on the stream gauges or answer any other questions.

Mike Mueller and Kenn Moss answered phone calls and gave brief responses when asked to explain their votes on the gauges, but then said they were too busy to keep talking.

Mueller said, “We’re just pulling back from a lot of previous commitments that were made for the expenditure of tax dollars.”

Only one of the five board members who voted to eliminate funding for the gauges, James Bialota, granted the Journal a full interview.

When asked if he is a Wingnut, Bialota said he sometimes attends Wingnut luncheons but also attends other political gatherings. When asked if there is a coordinated effort to stack the water development board with Wingnut luncheon attendees or Ferebee loyalists, Bialota said, “I haven’t heard one way or another on anything regarding that.”

About his vote to eliminate funding for the stream gauges, Bialota said his intent is not necessarily to shut down the gauges, but to investigate whether a different entity, such as a state agency or a nonprofit, could operate the gauges more cheaply than the USGS.

“I don’t know of any effort to de-fund any specific agency or project,” Bialota said. “Our funds should go to the best place possible where they can get the most bang for the buck and serve the public the most. That’s what everybody hopes.”

Janklow creations

Bialota’s statements raise the question of whether the district’s tax revenues are being spent wisely, and more fundamentally, why the West Dakota Water Development District and the state’s six other water development districts exist, and whether they should continue and be allowed to collect taxes.

The history of the districts stretches back to the 1950s, when the South Dakota Legislature created a statewide water conservancy district, along with several sub-districts, and gave the sub-districts the authority to collect taxes.

The sub-districts were supposed to construct water projects stretching from the then-new reservoirs on the Missouri River out into the rest of the state, for drinking water and agricultural irrigation.

Many of the envisioned projects never materialized, and by the late 1970s and early 1980s, the lack of water development in the state had become a political football. At the heart of the strife were two massive but ultimately failed projects: one to transport water from the Missouri River across northeastern South Dakota for irrigation; and the other to sell Missouri River water to a coal-mining company in Wyoming, so the water could be mixed with coal to form a slurry that would slide down a pipeline to coal-burning power plants in Southern states.

The failure of the projects, both of which were dogged by environmental concerns, led South Dakota then-Gov. Bill Janklow to win legislative approval for the replacement of the conservancy sub-districts — which covered most of the state and lumped myriad competing interests and watersheds together — with smaller water development districts organized around local waterways and watersheds.

Water development districts were given a broadly defined job description. Current state law says, in part, that water development districts should "promote the conservation, development, and proper management of district water resources according to district priorities." The districts are also supposed to "serve as a district-wide clearinghouse authority for water quality and supply projects."

News clippings from the 1980s say one of the purposes envisioned for the West Dakota Water Development District was the facilitation and funding of a comprehensive Black Hills hydrology study, to inform future water-management decisions in the region.

The need for the study became apparent during debates about the coal slurry project, which had originally included a plan to draw water from the Madison aquifer, an underground fresh water source beneath a huge swath of the Northern Plains. At the time, little was known about the exact location, size, quality and movement of the portion of the aquifer under the Black Hills.

The West Dakota Water Development District was formed in 1985, and the Black Hills Hydrology Study was initiated in 1990. In more recent years, the district has supported the dredging of lakes, studies of major floods and thunderstorms, studies of the effects of wildfires on water resources, studies of harmful algae in Black Hills waters, and studies into the water-quality effects of septic systems. The district also provides financial assistance to qualifying low-income homeowners for repairs to malfunctioning septic systems.

$200,000 in annual revenue

The district's tax levy is $0.029 per $1,000 of a property’s taxable value. That means the owner of a home with a taxable value of $200,000 will pay $5.80 to the district this year, and the owner of a home with a taxable value of $1 million will pay $29.

Within the district boundaries, which include only the portion of Pennington County that is west of the Cheyenne River, thousands of small tax payments add up to little more than $200,000 of annual revenue.

Mark Anderson, who recently retired from his job as Rapid City-based director of the U.S. Geological Survey’s South Dakota Water Science Center, frequently worked with the district’s nine-member board during his career and once considered it to be a model organization.

“There is a tremendous amount of influence with a nickel’s worth of money that West Dakota has had,” Anderson said.

Then, as Anderson put it, “along came George Ferebee” and Ferebee's crusade against the septic research findings and the resulting ordinance.

Ferebee did not earn his seat on the district board in a public election, even though board members are publicly elected to serve staggered four-year terms representing assigned areas of the district.

When a seat becomes vacant because of a death, disability, relocation or resignation, or when nobody runs for an open seat in an election, anyone who wants the job can submit a petition and signatures from at least 25 eligible voters from the applicant’s area of the district. The board members vote to approve or deny an applicant’s appointment to the board.

That’s how Ferebee got on the board in 2011, when his application was approved unanimously, according to the board's minutes. Ferebee left the board voluntarily at the end of 2012 to undertake an ultimately failed campaign for a state Senate seat.

Despite some misgivings, board members not only approved Ferebee's appointment but also some later appointments of his apparent allies. In interviews with the Journal, the only explanation offered by some regretful current and former board members was that there was often only one applicant, and there was a vague belief among some — unsupported by a reading of state laws that govern the district — that a qualified person who was the only applicant for the position could not be rejected.

How gauges work

Many people who are upset about the district's recent direction have refrained from speaking out publicly until now. The stream-gauge decision was a tipping point for Scott Kenner, a department head and professor of civil and environmental engineering at the South Dakota School of Mines & Technology in Rapid City. Kenner contributed some of the research that led to Pennington County’s adoption of septic regulations, and he said some of his and his students’ requests for funding from the district have since been turned down.

“They’re not funding anything, and it’s all because of a political agenda,” Kenner said.

Now, with the board’s decision to pull funding from two stream gauges, Kenner said valuable data could be lost.

The two affected gauges — spelled “gages” by the USGS — are actually multifaceted equipment installations consisting of tubes that emit nitrogen bubbles below the stream surface. The amount of force needed to emit the bubbles indicates an amount of pressure on the tube, which technicians can use to help calculate the depth, volume and flow of the water in the stream.

A device in a small shack near the stream uploads the data every hour to a satellite that relays the data to computers in Rapid City. Technicians at the Rapid City office of the USGS manage about 110 gauges — including stream gauges and others dedicated to aquifer-monitoring and flood warnings — and they visit each one monthly to conduct manual checks on the automated measurements, to note changes in vegetation and other conditions that could affect the measurements, and to calibrate the gauges and conduct routine maintenance.

Joel Petersen, a USGS hydrology technician in Rapid City, said he drives as many as 20,000 miles per year while maintaining gauges across the region, and he is one of seven technicians who share the work. All of the gauges are operated under cost-sharing arrangements with entities that are interested in the data — such as city, county or state government agencies, and nonprofits.

The gauge data is published by the USGS on the internet and is used by water managers, including those in charge of regulating the flows out of Deerfield and Pactola for drinking water in Rapid City and irrigation on Rapid Valley-area farms. The two gauges in question measure the water flowing into Deerfield and Pactola from spring-fed streams.

Ken Steinken, one of the four board members who voted to continue funding the gauges, called the devices “essential.”

“Without these gauges, we lose vital information that guides us in the fulfillment of our mission, which includes proper water management and better utilization of our water resources,” Steinken said.

Another board member, Robert Akers, expressed similar sentiments and added a criticism of what he described as the Wingnut faction of the board.

“They care nothing about water,” Akers said. “Water is not their issue. Their issue is taxes. They just hate the government.”

Napoli said the criticisms are unfair, because the Wingnut-associated board members are only doing what all public servants should do: closely scrutinizing the expenditure of public funds.

“All of a sudden now you’ve got some people on the board who are not doing the status quo, and all of a sudden you’ve got other board members complaining like crazy about a big conspiracy,” Napoli said. “That should raise some red flags.”

To those unfamiliar with the board, the drama on both sides may seem out of proportion to the size of the district's tax collections, especially in the case of Ferebee.

By virtue of the low taxable value of his mobile home, outbuildings and 250 acres of land, Ferebee, the man at the center of the political currents swirling around the West Dakota Water Development District, owes a total of $1.37 to the district for taxes payable this year.

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