On Wednesday April 17, the City of Pierre office sent out a news release extolling the city’s use of renewable energy resources.
Subtitled “Caring for the Environment,” the release said 72 percent of Pierre’s power supply is renewable, and 78 percent of it is “carbon-free,” meaning that no carbon dioxide emissions are created while the energy is generated.
That’s true, but there is another side to the story. Even “renewable” energy sources carry environmental and social costs.
For example, different electric plants using many types of fuel, are all producing electricity and putting it onto the electric grid — Pierre’s claim of renewable energy use only refers to which of those plants it chooses to purchase energy from, not which plants actually generate the electrical energy directly used by residents. If the city does not purchase much electricity from “dirty” energy sources like coal, those coal plants are still firing and sending electricity onto the grid.
“In physics, you’re getting the electrons closest to you,” Joni Livingston, Director of Member Services and Communications at Missouri River Energy Services said. Missouri River is the not-for-profit agency that sells Pierre a large portion of its electric power. “We’re not counting the electrons going into Pierre…” she said. “That [percentage] is what they’re contracted to receive… We know how much (sic) pieces of the pie are renewable energy.”
Lisa Meiman, the Media Relations Director for the Western Area Power Administration (WAPA), told the Capital Journal she suspected Pierre does directly benefit from hydroelectric power, given its proximity to the Oahe Dam. But this brings up another omission of the news release — the infrastructure needed to operate Missouri Basin dams also have negative environmental and human impacts on areas outside of Pierre.
“It’s renewable in the sense there’s always water,” South Dakota School of Mines hydrologist and assistant professor David Waterman said, “but at some of these dams there’s biological effects on the river… Some biology people would call it non-sustainable.”
“The dams have a number of effects on the river,” Dr. Meghann Jarchow, Chair of the USD Department of Sustainability and Environment, said. One prominent effect is the trapping of vital river silt in reservoirs.
“When you talk about New Orleans sinking, the dams act as sediment traps,” she said.
These “sediment traps” keep the river from carrying silt and carrying it downstream. As a result, water levels above the dam become higher as the riverbed is built up, and flooding can become more severe. Downstream areas composed of river sediment — like the Louisiana bayous — are likewise flooded, as the land erodes away without fresh material to sustain it.
Wildlife is also negatively impacted by Missouri River hydroelectric dams. In the capital area, the Least Tern, Piping Plover and Pallid Sturgeon are especially vulnerable, Jarchow said.
These animals rely on specific conditions. the Plover and Tern both nest on sandbars, and the sturgeon needs open water channels in order to migrate upriver and spawn. The Army Corps of Engineers takes these wildlife needs into consideration while considering its flood and power generation protocols, but, Jarchow said, “I think on the priority list, they aren’t on the center stage.”
Jarchow acknowledged that there will likely never be an ideal solution that balances flooding, power generation and ecological concerns; the dams provide essential energy to people and water to farmland that few would be willing to lose. Still, she said, “If you take away the dams, that has tremendous ecological advantages.”
Pierre’s hydroelectric power also is tinged with the history of forced relocation of Native Americans. Much of the land that was inundated by the creation of Lake Oahe in the mid-20th century was formerly productive farmland occupied by people of the Cheyenne River and Standing Rock Sioux reservations. The National Congress of American Indians estimates that more than 350,000 acres were lost, and many communities were forced to relocate.
While Pierre residents may enjoy relatively clean energy, many residents of Cheyenne River and Standing Rock reservations are still dealing with the economic and social impacts of the forced relocation. According to the National Congress of American Indians’ records, the late Vine Deloria Jr., a Standing Rock Sioux member, historian and one-time National Congress Chairman, called it “the single most destructive act ever perpetuated on any tribe by the United States.”