Gregory pumped storage project: Affected landowners concerned
When David Swift of Burke heard of the proposed Gregory Pumped Storage Project, his reaction was, “Oh, no!”
“I grew up in the area and my ancestors homesteaded this place around 1900,” he said. “But it is a lot bigger issue than just our place being covered with water. I am not convinced it’s for the good of the community, the good of South Dakota or the good of the region like those at Missouri River Energy are saying it will be.”
“When the project was proposed, our entire farmstead was in the reservoir area. It has been modified since then, but we’d still have a half section of our land underwater. Highway 1806 is a scenic road along the river which will be relocated a half mile from our house.”
David graduated from SDSU with a degree in ag engineering in 1991 and has been employed by a Kansas firm as an engineer for the last 30 years. He currently works in what was the kitchen of his grandparents’ home. With his wife Fawn, “We have the farm and manage it, growing corn and soybeans with a couple hundred acres of pasture. Our boys have run cows, currently have goats and we do some organic farming along with a pumpkin patch. Our son-in-law and one of our boys do the farming. It impacts us but it won’t destroy our livelihood.”
But having the land included in the project will affect dreams. The Swift family has 14 children ranging in ages from 28 to 1 ½ years. The oldest son is a veterinarian in Winner and aspires to return to the home place to ranch and run a large goat herd. Their second oldest son is currently farming 400 acres, and this project will be a major threat to his land.
David said the premise—that he disagrees with—is that this project is needed because of global warming and climate change. MRES is seeking a way to store power when other means are not constant. While MRES promotes renewable energy, landowners face tremendous changes. He said, “It’s a shame that they are considering flooding a bunch of farm and ranch land, disrupting families and affecting local recreational businesses along the Missouri River.”
Fawn said, “We dispute the fact that they consider it as green energy. They are taking 3,500 acres out of production that are growing crops which sequester carbon. During the construction phase, there will be a lot of diesel fumes generated. Hydroelectric power plants are producers of methane gas. They will ship the power generated out of state. We don’t know how this will make sense.”
Opposition group formed
A group called “Citizens Against Missouri River Pumped Storage Project” formed to fight what they view to be a federal and political overreach of the proposed Gregory County Pumped Storage Project. They chose the name to reflect the fact that it just isn’t Gregory County being threatened with this project. They want to portray a unified effort from both sides of the river and several miles north and south of the project. (Learn more about the group at Stopgregoryhydro.com)
Their group estimates that two hundred or more individual landowners/operators, businesses and homeowners would be affected in some way. The loss cannot be projected, as this is priceless. There are generations of historical memories destroyed, with no chance of future generations being able to continue a legacy.
There are a lot of unknowns in the MRES project that have people worried. David said, “We just don’t know where the boundaries will be. The applicants have been evasive and have not provided concrete information about where the upper reservoir will be and where/how the transmission lines will cross the river and be routed to their final destination. I worry that from a design standpoint, the soil is not stable along the edge of the river. Currently, ranchers face landslides in pastures where a section slides into the river.”
David said most of the land in the project area is tillable land with some pastures along the Missouri River. The reservoir would basically cover four square miles. David said some landowners may see a big price tag and be willing to sell. Some owners don’t live on the land.
Others in the area are generational farms. This project will completely change the community. Land prices are always competitive. David says some local sales have been in the area of $3,000 to $5,000 per acre.
Fawn said that one of the big concerns is that MidAmerican Energy is a for-profit company owned by Berkshire Hathaway, owned by Warren Buffett. “Learning that, it inflamed the discussion for many to think that such a company could potentially get a federal license and have the right of eminent domain.”
The group is concerned that there will be a tremendous impact on campgrounds and those who come to hunt and fish in the area. So, while the company says jobs will be created, some worry that the peaceful allure of the terrain will be disrupted, and the money generated from tourism in the future will evaporate.
Fawn said the companies are required to do fairly extensive studies to fulfill the National Environmental Policy Act. At the public meetings, people requested numerous studies to make sure all aspects are thoroughly researched. These studies would look at the impact on the Missouri River, fishing and hunting, the campgrounds, loss of personal property, the roads, regional water systems, and more.
Fawn questions claims made by MRES. “We don’t believe their ads that say they will leave the area better than they found it. You can’t take 3,500 acres of farmland, make it into a lake with a bunch of hydroelectric generating equipment and say that it’s equal. That land is taken out of production. That impacts our small communities.”
MRES reported that as many as 1,000 workers would be in the area during the construction phase. Local people wonder how the tiny towns like Platte, population 1,300, and Burke, population 600, will deal with the influx of that many people. David said, “We’ve heard what happened in North Dakota with fracking and worry that the workers would overrun campgrounds, which would kill the local industry and disrupt our towns.”
Fawn said, “We’ve been told the county will get rich with the increase in taxes. There is no other project like it in the state, so there is not really a way to know what those benefits may be.”
Cattle operation would disappear
Just east of the Swift home, Don Even is worried about the future for his family.
“This project would pretty much take the two quarters we own plus the three quarters we rent and put up on shares,” Even said. “Our house is in Lucas, about four miles away, so we would have that. But this would take in the machine shed, the calving barn we put up 10 years ago, the concrete bunks, the windbreaks. And take away the dreams of our kids coming back here.”
Even and his family raise 212 cows plus background feeder calves in their operation. Some years have been wet and miserable. Currently it’s terribly dry but those are small challenges compared to what is proposed to taking their land for the Gregory Pumped Storage project.
“We moved here twenty years ago, and we bought our land three years later. I came from a big family and my older brothers took over the feeder cattle operation from my dad. My wife Lisa is a physician and took a job at the Gregory hospital, so we moved out here and started our place.”
Their three children look forward to being part of the cattle operation. Frank is a junior at South Dakota State University, majoring in animal science and genetics. Tucker went to Mitchell Tech to learn the hands-on production side of animal science. And their daughter Taylor wants to be a veterinarian. “If this project goes through, it will totally change their outlook on what to do,” Even said.
“I don’t understand. This idea has been studied for 30 to 40 years. I would think engineers and scientists would come up with a better idea than this. Personally, I think it’s idiotic to pump water up a hill. They are planning to put up wind towers and solar panels to operate the pump, which would take up more land and also will mess up our skyline. It would make more sense to improve the current hydroelectric dams we have. We should focus on Improving what we already have in place.”
“Personally, with all the green energy hype, I think they might push it through. I don’t want them to go through with it.” He said if the project goes through, buying more land in the area would be difficult as everything gets handed down to the next generation. Currently, he’s not seen an offer from MRES for his land.
If the land is taken, the future will come down to their children and where they would want to live. Don said, “We would likely have to pack up to follow them to their new place. It’s not what we’d want. For now, we’re in limbo.”