With its mountains, green hills and Mount Rushmore, South Dakota is idyllic. But don’t let the lush parts of the state fool you. For the past 15 years, some of its regions have been suffering periodic droughts, leaving the land and its residents depleted.
This is especially the case for the Cheyenne River Reservation, home to half of the Lakota tribe. Located in Ziebach County, this is also one of the poorest areas in the country.
That’s why a group from the tribe is looking to the beaver (yes, the animal) to get things flowing again. They call themselves Mni which means “water,” and they’re working to rehydrate the land and their lives.
Fifteen years of on-and-off drought has left the soil in the region very dry, so now, when it experiences steady rainfall, the ground is too dry to absorb the water. The rainwater runs off the land and into the creeks along the Mississippi River causing flooding but no quenching replenishment of the land.
The Mni’s plan? To build thousands of beaver-like dams in creeks and gullies all over the reservation, which will slow the rainwater long enough so that it can be absorbed into the ground. Beavers have been the ones controlling the water flow for centuries, so Mni is looking to the experts.
Comprised of the Duchenaux family and headed by matriarch Candace, the Mni is starting small — constructing the dams on their land initially. If it’s successful, the group plans to spread it to other parts of the reservation and train workers to build them.
They aren’t stopping there, though. All of their work is part of a larger goal to bring sustainable water programs to the reservation. Their first step was to bring Environmental Prize-winning hydrologist Michael Kravcik to speak to the tribal leaders about ways to improve the area.
They also organized a group of volunteers, teachers and students to survey, design and build 19 dams. The project was funded partly through a grant from the Colorado State University’s Center for Collaborative Conservation. Additionally, they worked in partnership with the university’s chapter of Engineers Without Borders. The process was a trial-and-error effort to find the best places to build the dams. When a flash flood destroyed the first one, the team was encouraged because they were one step closer to finding the perfect spot and understanding the water flow.
For Candace Duchenaux, she feels that you have to start small to make the biggest impact on the world.
“We have a million acres of tribal land here,” she told Yes! Magazine. “If we could convince the indigenous nations to begin water restoration — to unite in it — not only could we have a huge impact on the hydrologic cycle, but we could also set an example for the rest of the world.”
Through their work, Mni is showing that it isn’t the size of a project that matters, but the know-how and perseverance to make a difference.