Religious compound's water could serve thousands, Park Service says

Rapid City Journal, South Dakota/January 25, 2015

By Seth Tupper

A rural Custer County compound inhabited by members of a reportedly polygamous sect would have enough water to become the county's most populous community if an additional well permit is approved by the state, a staunch opponent of the application asserts.

William Hansen, chief of the Water Rights Branch of the National Park Service, wrote that another well would mean the compound 15 miles southwest of Pringle would have enough water to serve 4,372 residents. At present, estimates of the population of the compound peak at about 300.

"For the sake of comparison," Hansen wrote in a petition protesting the additional well, "according to the 2010 census the population of Custer, which is the largest town in Custer County, was 2,067 residents."

Circumstances surrounding the sect — the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, often referred to as the FLDS — suggest that there may be plans for a sizable increase in the population at the Pringle compound.

The group's 1,700-acre Texas compound, where as many as 700 people once lived, was seized by state authorities in April following years of documented cases of underage brides bearing children fathered by older men. There's also an ongoing legal fight over FLDS trust-owned homes in a Utah-Arizona border town that has resulted in some evictions.

Sam Brower, an author and well-known investigator of FLDS activities, surmises that "a couple thousand" people eventually will live on the compound.

The Park Service, which operates Wind Cave National Park about 13 miles east of the proposed well site, is one of nine organizations or people that beat the deadline for filing petitions opposing the permit for the additional well. The petitions will force the state Department of Environment and Natural Resources to schedule a hearing of the Water Management Board.

DENR analysts have recommended approving the application.

The United Order of South Dakota, a trust that owns the 140-acre compound, wants to drill a third well. The trust is affiliated with the FLDS, which has continued the practice of plural marriage since its long ago split from the mainstream Mormon church. FLDS members live in several enclaves in the western United States, including the remote Black Hills compound, and in Canada.

Some neighbors of the South Dakota compound filed petitions against the well permit. (See "Compound's neighbors fear Waco-like situation," Page A5)

In the National Park Service’s lengthy petition filing, Hansen used an estimate of per capita domestic water use in South Dakota to calculate that 4,372 people could be served by the compound's requested water usage. Seemingly nobody outside the compound knows exactly how many people live there. A 2013 state drinking-water report says the compound's current water system serves 75 people.

Nearby residents and Custer County officials have estimated there could be between 100 to 300 people there.

The well permit would more than triple the compound’s total allowable use of the Madison aquifer, from 94 gallons per minute to 300. Additionally, the compound's 30,000-gallon underground water tank would be replaced with a 250,000-gallon above-ground tank, and 4-inch water mains would be replaced with 6- and 8-inch mains.

The man who submitted the application for the compound is Seth Jeffs, brother of Warren Jeffs, the former head of the FLDS. Warren Jeffs, who married multiple underage brides as young as 12, is serving a life sentence for sexual assault and aggravated sexual assault of children. Seth Jeffs was convicted in 2006 of helping to hide Warren Jeffs from authorities.

Seth Jeffs is listed as the certified operator of the South Dakota FLDS compound’s water system.

The National Park Service, in its petition letter, relied on usage reports filed with state regulators to calculate the compound’s average annual water usage, which is 25.9 acre-feet. The petition says that amount “is sufficient to meet the customary domestic needs of 234 persons.”

Complicating the estimates are the extensive gardens, visible in aerial photos of the compound, which presumably require a significant amount of water.

Seth Jeffs, when contacted weeks ago by the Rapid City Journal and asked how many people live in the compound, said “I don’t have that information.” During a more recent follow-up call, he declined to answer any questions.

Brower, the Utah-based private investigator whose book about the FLDS, "Prophet's Prey," has been adapted for a documentary premiering this month at the Sundance Film Festival, speculates the South Dakota compound will grow. He said estimates of the population of the Texas compound before it was raided in 2008 were as low as 100 to 200, but that number was far surpassed by just the number of children who were found there.

"They may not get 4,000 there," Brower said of the Pringle-area site, "but they're probably counting on a couple thousand. Their thinking is that the end of the world is coming, too, and they’re going to have to make their way, so they need as much water as they can get."

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