Watershed task force has twisting history

Farm Forum

PIERRE – Brad Johnson of Watertown has been an effective voice for clean water in South Dakota as chairman for the state Board of Water and Natural Resources.

He seemed like a logical choice when he was appointed in 2012 to the Legislature’s new regional watershed task force.

The appointment was made by then-Rep. Val Rausch, R-Big Stone City, in his role at the time as speaker for the House of Representatives.

Johnson, who makes his living as a real estate appraiser, understands the economic value of clean water in lakes and streams.

He also understands the economic significance of lakes that don’t dry up, and lakes that don’t flood, especially when they are surrounded by houses such as beautiful Lake Kampeska at Watertown.

Johnson felt put-upon when he wasn’t reappointed to the task force this year by Rep. Brian Gosch, R-Rapid City, the new speaker of the House.

Gosch instead kept Kim Vanneman of Ideal. She served on the task force last year while she was still a member of the House of Representatives.

Gosch appointed her to a general-public seat on the task force this year so she could continue. That decision bumped aside Johnson.

Vanneman was chairwoman for the House Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee during her final term as a legislator. Now she is vice chairwoman for the South Dakota Republican Party.

It seems only natural Gosch would favor keeping a former legislator. Vanneman’s committee, by the way, held a hearing last year on the legislation that created the task force.

Johnson said he thought his term was for three years. That’s not what the law says. He was replaced without knowing firsthand that it happened.

It is worth reading the laws created by the 2012 legislation. It is worth tracking the legislation’s trip through the process, too.

What becomes clear is the regional watershed task force was established primarily to look at drainage issues.

Not clean water.

The prime sponsor of SB 169 was then-Sen. Tom Hansen, R-Huron. His original version had nothing to do specifically with drainage or clean water.

Instead, Hansen proposed establishing the James River watershed district.

He was offering an alternative to the James River water development district, which was caught in controversy over the spending practices of its then-manager.

Meanwhile, pressure was brought against the James River water development district from another side.

Sen. Al Novstrup, R-Aberdeen, was prime sponsor of a proposal to create a new North Central water development district.

His legislation, SB 160, sought to move Brown, Marshall and Spink counties out of the James River district and into their own new one.

Novstrup used the legislative process to continue pushing for removal of Darrell Raschke as the James River district’s manager.

Novstrup’s bill was killed by the Senate Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee, which Hansen chaired. Two days later, the committee revived it and amended it, so that it simply said the Legislature may dissolve the James River district.

Then the full Senate went another step and added the statement that the Legislature may replace it with the James Basin – not river – water development district.

This would have meant creating a new government organization to replace the current one.

In the House, the Novstrup bill was assigned to the Vanneman committee. Vanneman held a hearing Feb. 16, and the bill was put on hold until the next week.

Vanneman wanted the Novstrup bill and the Hansen bill to have action on the same day.

The Hansen bill meanwhile was working its way through the Senate.

At its first hearing in Hansen’s committee, the Hansen bill was amended to add the regional watershed task force provisions.

The regional task force’s purpose was to advise the new James River watershed district that Hansen sought to form.

The advice was to be “on matters relating to drainage, erosion, flood control, reclamation, environmental protection, and improvement of lands, soils, waters, and all other authorized purposes.”

The task force language also contained three specific areas for recommendations. None of them addressed clean water. Two dealt with organizational matters.

The other dealt only with “drainage issues, including drainage planning and management, resolution of drainage disputes, and recommendations for potential realignment of responsibilities for drainage matters.”

The Hansen bill also now contained the composition of the task force. There would be four Senate members, two from each party, chosen by the Senate president pro tem. There would be four House members, two from each party, chosen by the House speaker.

Those two officers also would each appoint three members of the general public, with one of the three to have an agricultural or business background.

The Hansen bill also stated the first term for the appointees would run until Jan. 12, 2013, which would coincide with the start of the new legislative term. After that, the task force terms would be for two years.

The Senate then went to more work on the Hansen bill. Senators voted to remove all of the language referring to the original purpose of a James River watershed district. That left only the regional watershed task force language.

Senators also then added a sunset clause. If passed, the Hansen legislation creating the task force would expire Jan. 20, 2015.

On Feb. 23, 2012, the House committee under Vanneman’s chairmanship took up the Novstrup bill and killed it 12-0. The committee next took up the Hansen bill and endorsed it 12-0.

The full House then approved the Hansen bill, creating the task force, on a 65-4 vote.

The task force met twice last year. Gosch served as its chairman. The task force scheduled a two-day meeting, based at Aberdeen, for Dec. 10-11. The meeting, which was supposed to include tours of flooded areas, was canceled because of severe weather.

Another piece of background was the mixture of decisions by county commissions regarding involvement in drainage decisions in their areas.

Heading into the 2012 session, the East Dakota water development district’s manager Jay Gilbertson worked to develop interest in legislative action to somehow assist county governments on drainage matters.

That played a role in the formation of the task force under the Hansen bill.

Appearing as supporters of the task force at the House committee hearing were lobbyists representing Farm Bureau, Farmers Union, wheat, corn, soybeans, cooperatives, conservation districts and agri-business.

No one testified against it.

This year, matters got wild for a while. Five of the legislators on the 2012 task force, led by Sen. Mike Vehle, R-Mitchell, introduced a bill that would establish a uniform process and application that county governments could use for drainage permits.

That stirred strong opposition. The only people to testify for SB 179 were Vehle, Gosch and Gilbertson from East Dakota.

Speaking against were many producers and business people engaged in providing drain-tiling services for farm fields. Also speaking against were lobbyists for corn, wheat, soybeans, Farmers Union, Cattlemen and the county commissioners association.

Naturally the Vehle bill was killed.

Within days a frustrated Gosch, via other legislators, arranged for another bill to be amended so that it would wipe out the task force.

That measure, HB 1235, happened to be prime-sponsored by Rep. Jon Hansen, R-Dell Rapids.

It was later amended again to keep the task force but to require that participating groups pay at least half of the expenses for its operation. The House, in a show of support for Gosch, approved that version 63-6.

The Senate State Affairs Committee then killed it, too, 7-0.

So the task force remains. As for Brad Johnson, his clean-water work will continue to be done through the Board of Water and Natural Resources. The board doesn’t expire in 2015 and actually has money for loans and grants every month it meets.

In fact, the board made such a move two weeks ago.

The East River district, through a joint-powers agreement with the board, will conduct research on ground-water protections for well fields in its 10-county region covering Minnehaha, Moody, Lake, Kingsbury, Brookings, Hamlin, Deuel, Codington, Grant and parts of Miner, as well as Marshall and Clay counties.

Brad Johnson thinks he got shafted by ag groups on re-appointment, despite no obvious evidence of that.

Funny thing is, that’s how Brian Gosch felt about the ag groups too. Their reps showed up to oppose the model-permit legislation from members of the same task force they wanted established.

Soon all of this will pass and the only losses will be time and opportunity. Meanwhile Brad Johnson and anyone else can go to the task force’s first meeting of 2013 on April 22 at the Mitchell Ramada Inn.

Reporter Bob Mercer is blogging about South Dakota politics and government. Find his blog, Pure Pierre Politics, at