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Water-rights fight postponed

PIERRE -- The battle is done for this year in the Legislature over public access to the water over private land that has been flooded.

Landowners lobbyist Mike Shaw and state Game, Fish and Parks Secretary Jeff Vonk sat side by side and pledged to a Senate committee Wednesday they will work together on a proposal for the 2014 session of the Legislature.

The Senate panel then killed the current bill without taking any public testimony. The fight is about boaters, anglers and other sportsmen using the waters over otherwise private land, by reaching the water with a boat or on the ice, from a public road or right of way.

The state House of Representatives had already passed legislation that would have allowed landowners to close off some of those waters, depending on the circumstances.

The bill, HB 1135, was set for a showdown by the Senate State Affairs Committee before a large hearing room filled with sportsmen and landowners on opposing sides.

But in the minutes immediately prior to the meeting, the bill's prime sponsor, Rep. Charlie Hoffman, R-Eureka, could be seen in the hallway speaking with Vonk and others. Hoffman could be heard to say he was willing to pull his bill so that the topic could be further worked.

Sen. Larry Rhoden, the panel's chairman, said the conversation about the proposal during the past month was the most intense he's experienced in 13 years as a legislator.

Rhoden, R-Union Center, then asked Shaw and Vonk to come forward together and speak with the committee.

Vonk indicated that Gov. Dennis Daugaard wanted the matter resolved to the best satisfaction of all, but there wasn't sufficient time in the two-plus weeks left of the 2013 session.

"It's a critically important issue," Vonk said. He gave the legislators "my personal commitment" that he will return next year with legislation that both sides can support.

Shaw said stepping back provides an opportunity to find the points where they agree and work from there. "We're very pleased we have gotten the issue as far as we have this session," Shaw said.

Rhoden said legislators have an obligation to look at all sides and this is the best resolution at this time. He said he has "a great deal of respect and trust in the personalities that have been at the table to this point" and is optimistic that an agreement will be reached.

Sen. Corey Brown, R-Gettysburg, said he was "a little disappointed it's taken nine years" since the state Supreme Court case that put the decision regarding flooded private lands into the hands of the Legislature.

"Essentially there's a gaping hole there that remains undefined and they asked the Legislature to define that," Brown said.