MERCER: For Legislature, dilemma of too much water risesThere’s also the tension that builds among neighbors, when there aren’t good places to where water can be drained without flooding someone else’s land.
By: Bob Mercer, Republic Capitol Bureau
PIERRE — One of South Dakota’s biggest challenges in economic development these days is excess water. The Legislature, based on a worthwhile idea from Sen. Tom Hansen, will decide in the coming days whether to start wading in.
The specific problem is too much water pooled up in too many places, especially in the James and Big Sioux drainages of South Dakota’s eastern third.
Farmers and cattlemen are losing the potential for production on a lot of land that is under water. Every acre that can’t be planted or grazed is money lost.
The flooded lands affect suppliers of such essentials as seed and fertilizer, too. And water damage to roads is blowing holes in state, county and township budgets.
There’s also the tension that builds among neighbors, when there aren’t good places to where water can be drained without flooding someone else’s land.
For several years legislators have been talking among themselves. They recognize the frustration that is building in the countryside. They don’t want something horrible to happen, such as a shooting, or intentional damage.
But legislators have seemed unsure about what can be done. And county commissioners, who can operate as drainage boards, are increasingly questioning whether they want to be at the center of the problems and disputes.
And that’s where Tom Hansen stepped in this winter. The Republican senator from Huron brought a piece of legislation that recognizes the lack of coordinated response.
He proposed in Senate Bill 169 creating a regional watershed district for the James River, covering nearly two dozen counties.
Watershed districts are empowered under state law to control flooding and manage water flow. Those are just a few of the many things a watershed district can do, legally, to change the natural course.
The James River flows very slowly, meanders all over, and floods easily, as it runs from the top to the bottom of South Dakota. The valley’s flatness is a reason why TransCanada built its crude-oil pipeline down it.
When the James is running high, water can’t get down the many tributaries as easily. So not only are acres lost to agricultural production along the river itself, but across hundreds of square miles throughout the drainages.
The James starts in North Dakota, and quite often the river is already full before anything from South Dakota flows into it on its way to the Missouri River.
South Dakota already has a James River water development district. The public and the Legislature are learning, after a review by the state Department of Legislative Audit, that the development district has been managed in financially questionable ways.
The Legislature so far doesn’t appear inclined to let Brown, Spink and Marshall counties break away from the James River development district in that dispute, which is growing uglier by the month.
One of the Brown County Commission’s reasons for seeking to form a new North Central district with the two other northern counties, which Sen. Al Novstrup, R-Aberdeen, attempted unsuccessfully this legislative session, was to address the problem of too much water.
Water law in South Dakota is a tangle. We have regional water systems that deliver clean drinking water. We have water development districts that can oversee environmental projects to promote clean-up of rivers and lakes. And now we have Hansen’s proposal for a regional James River watershed district.
The simplest solution might be for the Legislature to simply dissolve the James River development district, and make a fresh start that focuses on the more pressing problems of too much water, by creating the James River watershed district.
We likely will know by sunset today whether anything will happen on this topic in the remaining 14 working days of the 2012 legislative session. The Senate is scheduled to resume debate of Hansen’s legislation this afternoon.
At this point the direction seems to be to create a 14-member task force that would study the concept of a regional watershed district and deliver a report to the Legislature, along with any suggested legislation, in time for the start of the 2013 legislative session.
That would put the matter of establishing any new district at least one year away or longer. But it also would lay the foundation for a comprehensive approach to drainage issues in South Dakota, including funding and governance.
Hansen has served a solid 10 years in the Legislature. Now 72, he can’t seek re-election to his Senate seat from Beadle County because he’s term-limited.
He is unlikely to run for the House of Representatives this year. Never flashy, typically cautious, he usually speaks only when necessary in the legislative process.
This seems to be one of those times.