26 April 2019

Lake Andes Floods


The following series of posts about flooding on the Yankton Sioux Reservation are coauthored and written with express permission of the Yankton Sioux Tribe.

Figure 1 Lake Andes on the Yankton Sioux Reservation in South Dakota is flooded and the crossroads are out. Photograph credit: Jennifer Veilleux

In March, a weather event referred to as a bomb cyclone flooded the Midwest leaving people stranded, devastating farms and livestock, and destroyed infrastructure. The punctuated precipitation and melt knocked the Niobrara, Platte, and Missouri, and a number of other minor waterways, out of their banks. The devastation that resulted included loss of livestock, human casualties, inundated fields, and destroyed roads, dams, and bridges. Damaged infrastructure continues to limit movement and community connectivity to services, work, stores, and each other. Visible destruction in the more populated areas associated with these rivers was featured in the news, along with links to climate change, and speculation about the management of the Missouri River. Stories of how this event impacted Tribal communities remains sparse. Impact on the Tribes is particularly important because indigenous populations that experience economic and political disparity (as demonstrated in county maps of economic disparity between individuals and households identifying as Native American and individuals and households identifying as Caucasian non-Hispanic that Dr. Candice Landry and I created in 2016) are experiencing compromised services, complicated and inadequate emergency response, stifled communications, and disrupted transportation from the flooding that can continue for months or even years after a natural disaster hits, and after similar issues in non-Native communities gets resolved.

This post, and the posts to follow will be about one such tribal community that lives and works on the banks of the Missouri River in southeast South Dakota.

Figure 2 Lake Andes on the Yankton Sioux Reservation in South Dakota is managed by US Fish and Wildlife Service under the Department of the Interior. © 2019 Jennifer Veilleux

Lake Andes is a freshwater lake within Ihanktonwan Territory (the land of the friendly people) otherwise known as the Yankton Sioux Tribe’s Reservation in South Dakota. There are mixed communities of Dakota and non-Native people living on the lakeshore and near to the lake in the town of Lake Andes (population 819 by the sign). To explain why there are non-Natives who own land within tribal boundaries is to get into a history of treaty violating legislation approved by the US Congress since the 1850s that promotes occupation of farm- and ranch-land by non-Natives in order to erase and assimilate the indigenous people, their culture and lifeways, and replace with the Euro-centric idea of land and water use and management. For the purposes of this article, this is a simplified description of a complicated and violent theory of settler-colonialism that continues today. The local word for this genocidal occupation is referred to as allotments (Dawes Act) resulting in checkboarding, because the land was carved up, and allocated, in squares, which, on a map, look like a checkerboard. (More about this ugly history can be found online and through journal articles by indigenous scholars using these key terms.) This digression is to say that while the lake occurs within the Yankton Sioux Tribe Reservation, jurisdictions, responsibilities, economic investment, and communities are diverse, overlap, and can be confusing.


Figure 3 Road Closed signs dot the Yankton Sioux Tribe’s Reservation, such as on state highway 18 above, limiting access to the town of Lake Andes indefinitely. Photograph credit: Jennifer Veilleux

Driving into the town of Lake Andes on state highway 18/281, one is confronted with a sign that states Road Closed. Just beyond the sign, it is possible to see that Lake Andes has overtopped the road for such a distance that chancing the drive would be foolish. The water flows quite actively out of the lake, over the road, and into a gully, and against a housing development, locally called Indian Housing or just 'housing', where families are experiencing flooded basements and yards. There is tell of an old manmade tunnel that is meant to funnel water miles away to the Missouri River and I visited the outlet of that tunnel, a metal pipe about 5 feet in diameter, on the other side of Lake Andes where scores of fishing birds including pelicans, cormorants, egrets, ducks, and even a few great blue herons are fishing in the turbulent waters. Corpses of large fish dot the dirt road where either the water overtopped and left them stranded or pelicans decided they were no good for eating and dropped them. The history of the lake management is complicated, somehow involving the State of South Dakota and the Tribe, but today the lake is managed as a wildlife refuge by the US Fish and Wildlife Services under the Department of Interior. The management and authority responsible for that tunnel as an outlet for the lake to the Missouri is more unclear.

Figure 4 Local playground on the shore of Lake Andes within the Yankton Sioux Tribe’s Reservation is underwater. © 2019 Jennifer Veilleux

A drive along the west side of the lake you encounter an inundated playground and turning north, there are two impassable dirt roads built across the lake. If you want to get around the flooding, there are poorly maintained dirt roads up over the hills, and cars like mine get their undercarriages torn up making the drive. The tribal transportation still shuttles the casino employees, but service is limited by the detours. And there is as of yet no visible solution to the flooding, no sandbagging, no crews out working to dam the water. When the water recedes the erosion and subsidence shifting to the infrastructure will have be assessed. In fact, on a walk out along the sidewalk/bikepath that leads along the highway out to housing today, before the pavement disappears under the water it is clear to see that the whole thing is undercut and is crumbling. This sort of destruction is already visible in other areas across the reservation where the water and ice destabilized bridges and shifted or wrecked roadways. Roads are currently impassable, bridges are unsound, and people are having to detour tens of miles to get to work, to the doctor, to stores and food. Road closed signs dot the landscape across the Reservation. 

The next post will feature damage from flooding to people's personal property and why that is different in Indian Country.


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