Secretive religious compound reduces water request

Rapid City Journal/April 28, 2015

By Seth Tupper

A rural Custer County compound inhabited by members of a secretive religious sect has reduced its request for extra water rights, while claiming the water is needed for additional agricultural production and admitting the compound has no fire protection.

The compound, whose residents are members of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, originally requested permission to withdraw up to 300 gallons per minute from an aquifer but has since lowered the request to 200 gallons per minute.

“We hope this relieves your fears and concerns,” wrote Seth Jeffs, the compound’s water operator, in a letter to government officials.

The reduced request would still more than double the compound’s current maximum withdrawal rate of 94 gallons per minute from the Madison aquifer.

The water-rights application, filed in October, triggered speculation that the compound’s population is growing. A number of petitions have been filed against the permit, which is subject to a state Water Management Board hearing that has been postponed until at least July.

The petitions include an array of concerns, ranging from suspicions of child brides at the compound to feared impacts of aquifer usage on cave-forming processes at nearby Wind Cave National Park.

Seth Jeffs sent his letter reducing the request in February, after neighboring landowners and land managers filed their opposition petitions.

“I take this opportunity to describe the reason why we are asking for more water rights,” Jeffs wrote.

Nevertheless, the letter does not say how many people are served by the water system or whether the compound’s population is growing. Instead, Jeffs explained that the compound’s two previously permitted wells are both afflicted with problems, and only one is operative.

The operative well “is not able to keep up with the additional demand of watering gardens, orchards, landscape, and feeding animals during the spring and summer months,” Jeffs wrote. His permit application seeks a third well.

“The number of gardens and orchards will increase as the community is able to bring more of the land into cultivation; also the needs for animals in the future will increase the demand for water,” Jeffs wrote.

He added, “The need for fire protection is also a great concern. Currently there is no dependable fire protection.” There are plans to rectify the fire-protection problem by installing a bigger water-storage tank and bigger water mains, Jeffs wrote.

Jeffs explained in the letter that since there is no way to know how much water a third well will produce, he inflated his original water-rights request to 300 gallons per minute “to be safe.”

He then acknowledged that “there will only be a need to pump at a peak rate of 200 GPM at short times usually during the spring and summer months.”

Water-usage reports attached to the letter detail the growth of water use at the compound from 2.8 million gallons in 2008 to 6.2 million gallons in 2009 and 8 million gallons in 2010. No reports are attached for later years, but Jeffs wrote in the letter that water usage in 2014 was 8.3 million gallons. The initial land acquisitions for the compound occurred in 2003.

William Hansen, chief of the Water Rights Branch of the National Park Service, assailed the compound's permit application in a January petition filed on behalf of Wind Cave National Park, writing that the original request was "wholly speculative" and would provide enough water to serve 4,372 residents, more than twice that of Custer County's largest city, Custer. Hansen has since filed a letter stating that the Park Service is re-evaluating its stance on the application in light of the lowered request.

In recent annual drinking-water reports, Jeffs has listed the number of people served by the compound’s system as 75. Independent verification of that number is difficult because of the fences, berms and natural obstructions that keep the compound’s inhabitants out of sight.

The remote, 140-acre compound is near the end of a road that terminates at the edge of Red Canyon, about 10 miles southwest of Pringle in the southern Black Hills. The compound is owned by a trust called the United Order of South Dakota.

The Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, known by the initials FLDS, continued to condone polygamy after breaking away from the Mormon church decades ago. Other FLDS members live in the sister communities of Hildale, Utah, and Colorado City, Ariz., and in enclaves in Colorado and British Columbia, Canada.

The FLDS became nationally known because of its former leader, Warren Jeffs, who is serving a lifetime prison sentence for sexually assaulting girls he took as underage brides. Seth Jeffs is Warren’s brother and was convicted in 2006 of helping Warren Jeffs avoid arrest.

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