Missouri River Flood Damage to South Dakota Parks Set at $9M
Last summer’s flooding, which destroyed buildings, wrecked campgrounds and killed trees, ultimately caused about $9 million in damage to dozens of South Dakota’s parks, state Parks Director Doug Hofer said.
High water damaged 41 parks and recreation areas statewide, with the most extensive destruction in seven parks and recreation areas along the Missouri River, where water rushed through the parks for more than two months, The Associated Press reported.
A deep melting snowpack and heavy May rains prompted the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to release record amounts of water from reservoirs in the upper river basin earlier this year. Peak releases from the dams were nearly double the previous record as the corps flushed excess water downstream.
After the water receded, crews began repairing the damage this fall in an effort to get the parks up and running as close to normal as possible next spring.
“We’ll have the parks open again. It’s just that there’s going to be a healing process that’s going to take some time beyond the opening of the park season next year,” Hofer said.
“But I’m confident we’ll have all the parks open next year for public use.”
State officials had expected that the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to reimburse South Dakota for part of the damage to its parks system, but FEMA recently notified the state it would not cover damage to parks along the Missouri River, Hofer said.
The Parks and Recreation Division will use its own money to fix what it can, but it may have to ask for some state general funds to finish the job.
“We’re going to look within and do everything we can to deal with this flooding before we would ask for any outside help,” Hofer said.
Oahe Downstream Recreation Area and Farm Island Recreation Area, both just below Oahe Dam near Pierre, suffered the worst damage in the park system and were closed all summer. Buildings were damaged, turf was washed away, electrical hookups for campsites were ruined and three-quarters of the two areas’ trees could die after having their roots soaked for months.
Crews at Farm Island, for example, have already cut down 250 trees, and more are expected to die by next spring.
Also closed all summer were: Fisher Grove Recreation Area on the James River east of Redfield; American Creek Recreation Area in Chamberlain; and the Platte Creek, North Point and Buryanek recreation areas further downstream on Lake Francis Case. Most of Snake Creek was closed for the entire summer.
Pat Thompson, manager at Farm Island, said crews have re-seeded the main campground, started to fix the electrical system that provides electricity to the campsites and are working to repair buildings damaged by the high water. The campground will open next year after the grass has grown to the point it can survive the wear and tear of campers, he said.
“I’m hoping by the Fourth of July we’ll have the campground fully open,” Thompson said.
On the island itself, which is separate from the campgrounds and other park facilities on the river’s east shore, the extensive trail system was damaged when the water deposited sand dunes in some areas and washed out the trail in others.
Steve Rounds, who had just started operating the marina, restaurant, store and cabins at the Oahe Downstream Recreation Area this year, was particularly hard hit when water surrounded the buildings and the park closed. He not only faces the cost of repairing those buildings but lost an entire summer’s worth of revenue.
“It was a summer from hell, basically,” Rounds said.
Rounds plans to have the restaurant and some cabins open by January.
He praised state Game, Fish and Parks officials for helping him fight the flood waters, working to repair the park and extending his lease so he could get a long-term loan to get the marina operating again. Rounds said he needs the campgrounds open again because he depends on campers for a lot of his business.
Of the 4,200 total individual campsites located in parks and recreation areas across the state, 550 were shut down last summer, Hofer said. By October, 200 were open again, but not all the remaining 350 will be up and running by the traditional start of camping season on Memorial Day. Some will take longer to open because the electrical system is damaged or dirt and grass have been washed away, he said.
“We’ll keep opening them as fast as we can,” Hofer said.
The flooding came on the heels of another hit to the state parks: Gov. Dennis Daugaard and the Legislature cut the Parks Division’s budget $650,000 as part of the effort to balance this year’s state budget, prompting the Game, Fish and Parks Commission to raise camping and other fees to get an extra $900,000 to offset the budget cut and help pay for controlling pine mountain beetles in Custer State Park in the Black Hills.
But through the end of summer, the number of visitors at state parks was down nearly 11 percent from the previous year, and camping use was down more than 9 percent. The parks system’s revenue was $1.2 million less than had been expected.
The Parks Division will do everything it can with its own money to fix up the parks, Hofer said.
“Then it comes down to what are we going to fix and what are we not going to fix,” he said.