Want to move to a charming rural town? Ask about the sewage disposal system

Wastewater inundation causes a commotion in South Dakota.


One hundred acres are the beating heart of my South Dakota ranch. Century-old cottonwoods shelter pregnant cows through the winter, and it’s here that we harvest hay for the entire ranch and where my parents once planned to build their retirement home.

But last January, 1.5 million gallons of wastewater spilled onto this land from a sewage lagoon owned by the nearby small town of Hermosa. The town’s public works director was casual about the dangers and hostile to my questions about the effects of the spill. But a state employee, who specializes in Confined Animal Feeding Operations (CAFO), says cattle should be kept off the land for at least 30 days due to the high concentrations of E. coli bacteria.

A rancher on his property in South Dakota.
Julio Nolasco, Flickr user

I filed a complaint with the town and notified the South Dakota Department of Environment and Natural Resources. Since state law provides for substantial financial penalties for repeated violations, I expected hefty fines could inspire the town to clean up its mess. I hoped state experts could provide technical assistance to help the town meet its obligations.

At a town meeting I attended, however, officials admitted they had expected the lagoon to overflow because usage was overwhelming existing facilities. They also admitted that the lagoon was monitored mostly by the owners of the land, which violates state law. Like a good citizen, I expressed my concerns and then waited for state and local officials to do their jobs.

I have been utterly naive. Many rural elected officials have never even lived in a town. I try to sympathize: How can these folks plan for the growth and expectations of so many new citizens used to urban life?

This July, I took the granddaughter of the man who homesteaded my ranch in the 1800s to see the avenue of ancient cottonwoods he’d planted. She loved the view of the little town until I pointed out the lagoon. We avoided the polluted soil.

Now it’s fall, nine months after the spill. Across the highway from my sewage-fouled fields stands a new church, a new American Legion Hall and another subdivision. Going from post office to library in town, I ask residents if they know where their sewage goes. Most do not, so I tell them, pointing to the reeking pond across the highway. 

I also remind the lagoon’s neighbors that the town has a reputation for dumping garbage on anybody living nearby and failing to clean it up. In 2007, when a flood damaged and destroyed subdivision houses close to the lagoon, an estimated 23,000 pounds of gasoline cans, car parts, lawn mowers, dead animals and lumber washed into my field. The 20-foot-high pile of trash remains. 

Recently, I wrote to state and town officials, asking what they are doing to prevent future sewage spills. I also asked: “Has the town paid a fine? Is the lagoon monitored?” I received no response to my questions. The town has not built a new sewage cell or a berm, but it recently notified me that “land application” — that is, dumping sewage wastewater — will occur before Nov. 1, perhaps as a deterrent against future spills.

Developers have profited greatly as former hayfields like mine turn into subdivisions. Yet no one — not the developers, the town, the county or state  —  takes responsibility for what development does to the environment, the groundwater, the hapless new residents of those subdivisions or the rural neighbors. 

This problem exists all over the West. How many towns have unpleasant but necessary facilities too close to homes because the town planners didn’t expect the town to get that big? Still, as towns grow, it’s their responsibility to provide safe sewage disposal, among other things. What can a law-abiding citizen do to protect health and property from the effects of irresponsible development? Apparently appealing to state and local officials is useless. 

So here’s my warning: If you dream of moving to some charming rural town where you can get to know your neighbors, take a good look first at the sewage disposal system. Along with a folksy small-town welcome, you may also get your neighbors’ sewage. The website of the town of Hermosa, in Custer County, South Dakota, says the town is “not only a great place to visit, but a safe and welcoming place to raise your family.” Sorry, but I can’t agree.

Linda M. Hasselstrom is a contributor to Writers on the Range, the opinion service of High Country News. She has published 15 books of poetry and nonfiction and conducts writing retreats on her South Dakota ranch and online.

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