For only the third time ever, the state Water Management Board this week may declare one of South Dakota’s groundwater aquifers off-limits to further irrigation or similar development requiring permits.

Chief Engineer Garland Erbele of the South Dakota Department of Environment and Natural Resources’ Water Rights Program said the DENR is recommending the board approve 10 new applications for irrigation permits in the Tulare-East James Aquifer at its Thursday meeting in Pierre. But Erbele said the DENR is also recommending that the board declare the aquifer “fully appropriated” after issuing those permits.

“In South Dakota there’s a law that says the amount of water you withdraw from the aquifer can’t be greater than the average annual recharge to the aquifer,” Erbele said.

The Tulare-East James aquifer – stretching from northeastern Beadle County to about central Spink County – is now reaching that point.

Erbele said the state Water Management Board already declared two other aquifers fully appropriated at its March 2012 meeting, the Tulare-Hitchcock and Tulare-Western Spink aquifers. Both of those aquifers are immediately to the west of the aquifer that is under discussion this week, or in the northern Beadle and southern Spink county areas, although Tulare-Western Spink also reaches into northeastern Hand County.

There are about 160 aquifers in the state.

“Fully appropriated” means that new permits will no longer be issued for those uses that require permits, Erbele explained. Permits are required for irrigation, industrial, commercial, municipal, suburban housing, institutional, geothermal, instream flows and fish and wildlife.

Domestic use under South Dakota law is the highest priority use of water and does not require a permit, so that use could still be developed.

The drought of 2012 has been a factor driving interest in irrigation this year, which has seen more requests for new irrigation permits than in any year since the late 1970s. But Erbele said the drought itself has little to do with the fact that the aquifers in the Spink and Beadle county area are almost fully appropriated, since that long-term average of annual recharge in the aquifer reflects fluctuations due to wet and dry years. Wet conditions in 2008, 2009, 2010 and part of 2011 recharged the aquifers in much of the state, Erbele said.

“For the most part our aquifers are in pretty good shape,” Erbele said. “If we have drought continue for several years, we may see aquifers approach historic lows, but we’re not seeing it at this point.”

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