SD Senate holds initial hearing on river-basin management

Farm Forum

PIERRE — A state Senate panel took testimony on Feb. 12 about a proposal to divide South Dakota into nine river-basin units for dealing with water-level problems.

The Senate Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee didn’t take action. Its chairman, Sen. Gary Cammack, R-Union Center, deferred the matter until Feb. 17.

Cammack suggested the bill’s prime sponsor, Sen. Jason Frerichs, D-Wilmot, work on additional amendments that would cover the majority of the concerns expressed during the hearing.

The legislation, Senate Bill 2, came from the Legislature’s regional watershed task force that has met for three years.

Frerichs asked that the legislation be significantly amended. While the concept would remain, the basin councils wouldn’t become operational yet.

Instead, an oversight panel would conduct a pilot project with the local governments in the Vermillion River basin to develop a management plan that could serve as an example for other basin councils.

The amendment also asks that Class 1 municipalities be removed from the governing structure for each basin and existing county ordinances wouldn’t be repealed.

Mike Elsen of Hecla testified in support of the concept. He said 2009 through 2011 was “really a struggle” for agricultural producers in his part of northeast South Dakota.

“As a rural farmer, we are the minority, but we have the most at stake and the most at risk,” Elsen said. “This is kind of the start of something moving forward.”

South Dakota already has conservation districts that deal primarily with land practices and water development districts that deal with regional projects.

Brad Preheim, manager for the Vermillion River water development district, spoke in favor of the river-basin concept.

“We feel like this is our last option,” Preheim said. He recalled legislation from 17 years ago on drainage. He said then-Sen. Dennis Daugaard — now governor — was a co-sponsor.

Jay Gilbertson, manager for the East Dakota water development district, acknowledged the legislation isn’t perfect. “This is something we very much would like to see happen,” he said.

Former Rep. Kim Vanneman, R-Ideal, testified by telephone. She was a member of the task force for the three years. She described the amended bill “as a great step forward.”

If the legislation died in the committee, the work would be “for naught” and legislators would have to start over, Vanneman said.

Matt Sibley, a lobbyist for South Dakota Farmers Union, said the organization supports moving forward.

Mike Held, a lobbyist for South Dakota Farm Bureau, repeated an old description of state water law as “a tangle.” He recalled 1985 action by the Legislature that gave drainage jurisdiction to counties.

“That has been less than successful,” Held said, noting that some counties have used the authority.

Task force member George Vandel of Pierre said the contentiousness of the situation “hit me” during the work.

Vandel said some people are concerned about the additional water coming into a drainage, including from field tiling, and producers are concerned about losing their authority to use tile to drain their fields.

“I think it would be a big mistake to remove these municipalities,” Vandel said. “I don’t know how you can remove 80 percent of the public from involvement in their watersheds.”

“Some counties do a really good job. Some counties do nothing. That needs to be repaired,” Vandel added.

Another task force member, Rep. Dennis Feickert, said county governments should be part of the discussion. Feickert, D-Aberdeen, is a former Brown County Commission member.

Matt McCaulley, lobbyist for the South Dakota Corn Growers, said the organization supports movement forward, but doesn’t support the specific legislation.

McCaulley noted that cities wouldn’t be part of the basin councils under the latest version of the bill while county governments have been added.

Gary Jaeger, Deuel County Commission member, said the concept is very good, “but it’s an overstep of the bureaucracy we don’t need.” There are 17 counties active in drainage matters, according to Jaeger, who opposed the plan.

Reuben Parks, a Day County landowner, spoke against it. He said there would be new taxes and a new regulatory agency.

“The cost of Senate Bill 2 will become a major financial burden and a regulatory nightmare for agriculture,” Parks said, adding there will be costs too for litigation.

Parks said the pilot project should be performed before the basins are created.

In his rebuttal, Frerichs said 588,000 acres of private ground are now under water.

“There is no taxing authority in this right now. We’re not hiding the fact that is going to be needed in the future,” Frerichs said.

Frerichs said legislation would be brought to the 2016 session that would establish the basin boundaries. He said there isn’t any rule-making authority in the current version of the legislation.

Sen. Jim Peterson, D-Revillo, said Deuel and Grant counties “and some other counties as well” have drainage ordinances that are effective.

Peterson asked whether counties could opt out. Frerichs said the basin district could be dissolved by petition and a vote.

Peterson next asked Frerichs whether it’s legal to try to control water levels. Frerichs said he is “imagining ways” that can be used to coordinate efforts.

Jaeger returned to the witness table to answer questions. He said local officials want some local control. “Because we are the people on the ground,” he said.

The biggest concern for county commissioners was the taxing power, Jaeger said, and another concern is liability.

Sen. Mike Vehle, R-Mitchell, said Frerichs did “an excellent job” explaining the task force’s work and the legislation.

“After two and a half years, now we’re starting to get it,” Vehle said. Now the challenge is sharing that understanding with the rest of the Legislature, he said.

Vehle, who served on the task force, said counties were granted the governing authority. Some use it and some don’t, he said.

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