SD legislators indicate session to reopen lakes will be in June

Bob Mercer Farm Forum Correspondent
Farm Forum

Some leaders of the South Dakota Legislature indicated on May 10 they want a special session this year, possibly as early as June.

The session would consider restoring public access to some, or all, of 25 lakes and sloughs that the South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks Commission closed in April.

“We will leave no stone unturned. It’s a very complex issue. We’re searching for simple answers that can be dealt with quickly,” Sen. Brock Greenfield, R-Clark, said.

The game commission acted in response to the South Dakota Supreme Court’s ruling March 15 regarding public use of non-meandered waters over private land.

The justices unanimously declared that neither outdoors enthusiasts nor landowners have a superior right. They specifically closed several bodies of water in Day County at the center of a lawsuit.

The justices said the Legislature must decide the matter.

Nonmeandered is a legal reference to impermanent water bodies that government survey crews in the late 1800s declined to designate as permanent water bodies in what was then Dakota Territory. The Supreme Court decision does not affect meandered lakes or those that are man-made, like Richmond and Mina.

Heavy rains and snows during the 1990s flooded parts of many farms in South Dakota. A quarter-century later, the pools of water remain over private lands in many places, especially in the closed basins of the northeast, known as the Prairie Pothole Region.

The Legislature’s Executive Board appointed 15 lawmakers April 18 to study regulation of access to and use of nonmeandered waters on public and private property.

Greenfield is vice chairman of the task force.

“I’m hopeful that special session can be very soon,” he said. “I’m talking days, really, when it comes down to it.”

His goal: “By early June we can be looking at a reasonable solution.”

His comments on May 10 came as task force members finished their two-day meeting at Northern State University’s Berggren Hall. The panel’s next meeting is May 24 in Pierre, said Rep. Lee Qualm, R-Platte. He is the House Republican leader and the chairman of the task force.

The legislators listened to three hours of testimony on May 9 and three more hours of testimony on May 10.

They also spent six hours on May 9 on a bus tour in Day County meeting with business owners and looking at areas of water.

Rep. Spencer Hawley of Brookings said “one or two or three” drafts of legislation could be considered May 24. He is the House Democratic leader.

Hawley listed three issues the special session could be built around:

• Authorizing the game commission to decide regulations for specific bodies of water.

• Limiting landowner liability.

• Authorizing GFP staff to negotiate with individual landowners.

Qualm said public testimony wouldn’t be part of the May 24 meeting. Conversations would continue “off-line” between legislators in the meantime, he said.

“I think we need to have something in place,” Qualm said.

He said he liked Hawley’s list, adding that some issues brought by citizens were more complex than could be covered during a special session’s limited span.

Rep. Larry Rhoden, R-Union Center, had proposed appointment of the task force. He said on May 10 the immediate goal is to get the lakes open again and private property rights should be “paramount.”

Qualm said he heard many good ideas during the two days of testimony.

“It’s not the end-all, but it’s the beginning,” he said, closing the meeting.

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