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SD delegation seeks to head off Corps plan to charge for water

WASHINGTON (AP) — South Dakota's congressional delegation is pressing House and Senate negotiators to keep a provision in a massive water projects bill that would prevent the Army Corps of Engineers from charging some state residents for use of water.

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The House and Senate have both passed large water projects bills this year. The two bills are now the subject of House-Senate negotiations to merge them.

The Senate's version includes a provision pushed by South Dakota's delegation that would prevent the Corps from restricting access to water in the Missouri River and stop the Corps from charging people who use water in Missouri River reservoirs in South Dakota, North Dakota and Montana, as it has proposed.

Sen. John Thune led the effort to get the provision in the Senate bill and called the Corps' proposal a power grab. He said he is pressing negotiators on the committee dealing with the water projects bill to keep the provision in the final bill.

"We argue they don't have the authority to do that," Thune said. "We're doing everything we can to keep it in the conference bill."

Rep. Kristi Noem, who is also pressing House and Senate negotiators to keep the provision in a compromise bill, said the Corps' proposal would punish residents who worked with the Corps in good faith when it flooded land along the Missouri River in the past and built new flood protections.

"We're hoping this Senate language stays in, otherwise residents in some areas could start essentially being taxed for their own water," Noem said.

The water provision was included in the Senate version of a larger water projects bill. Negotiations over how to blend House and Senate versions of the bill are ongoing, though lawmakers say they are optimistic an agreement can be reached by the end of the year or early 2014.

The House passed its version of the water projects bill in October, with a rough cost of $8 billion according to the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office. The Senate passed its version, at about $12 billion, according to the CBO, in May.

Other elements of the bill could also affect South Dakota.

Noem said she will press lawmakers to retain language from the House bill that would require the Corps to provide more notification to residents in the event it decides it needs to release water to prevent more significant flooding.

Noem said that one of the biggest complaints she heard two years ago, when the Missouri River flooded, was that residents only had a few days notice ahead of Corps plans to do controlled flooding.

Congressional leaders, including Rep. Bill Shuster, the chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, traveled to South Dakota to see the impact of the Corps' decision and held a hearing in South Dakota, Noem said.

"Chairman Shuster totally understands why that language needs to be included," Noem said. "That's one of those instances where having people there to see the consequences will impact them."

Other elements of the water projects bill could affect South Dakota in the future. Both the House and Senate versions of the bill would speed the Corps' environmental review process. That would allow many projects to move forward more quickly.