Concerns arise over merger of S.D. agencies

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Some South Dakota farmers, ranchers and environmental advocates are concerned about Gov. Kristi Noem’s plan to combine the state Department of Agriculture and Department of Environment and Natural Resources into a single agency and are wondering what the new agency could mean for the state’s largest industry and the regulation of agricultural practices and pollution.

So far, almost no details have been released about the merger and the new agency that will result, causing concern among many whose lives and livelihoods depend on agriculture and the successful regulation of the industry.

Based on a News Watch analysis of surrounding states, South Dakota would become the only state in the Great Plains region that does not separate its environmental protection agency from its department of agriculture.

The planned merger has the potential to profoundly reshape the complex relationship between agriculture, the environment, and the people charged with promoting and regulating the industry.
But the governor’s office has not yet released a plan on how the new agency will work, what the merger will cost or save in terms of tax dollars, if state employees will lose their jobs, what its budget will be or how regulation may be affected.

Some South Dakota agricultural leaders are concerned that the current Department of Agriculture’s mission to “promote, protect and preserve” the industry could be diminished under the new department.

Environmental advocates, meanwhile, say they are worried that the DENR’s mission to protect public health and the environment will be undermined, given the Noem administration’s support for the agricultural industry, including her push to expand the number of concentrated animal feeding operations, or CAFOs.

“Without knowing all the details, it’s hard to say exactly what might happen,” said Jay Gilbertson, the manager of the East Dakota Water Management District who is a staunch advocate for water quality and strict regulation.

“It’s hard for me to imagine what the advantage of this merger is.”

The concerns of farmers and ranchers is that even though the Noem administration has been supportive of the agricultural industry, future governors may take a different approach, said Scott VanderWal, president of the South Dakota Farm Bureau Federation. If a future governor appoints a department secretary who favors tougher environmental regulation of agriculture, there won’t be someone of equal rank to push back, he said.

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