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James River district considers its mission, purpose

The James River Water Development District feels it is drifting too far from its primary purpose, according to a meeting Thursday morning in Mitchell.

The group oversees financial assistance for watershed projects near the James River, but its leaders said the group is funding projects that are not specified in its mission statement. The board discussed what the district would like to focus on more in approving projects in the coming years.

The manager of the neighboring East Dakota Water Development District, based in Brookings, told the JRWDD board that most of the projects that have been funded have been successful and needed.

Jay Gilbertson looked at which projects the board approved since January 2012. Of the more than $1.4 million in projects approved since then, 12 percent went toward "technical support" projects, which reflects the group's mission statement. It state's the JRWDD will "identify areas for technical assistance."

Examples of those technical projects include helping with engineering costs for a Mid-Dakota Rural Water System water tower near Redfield in 2012, and a water system study for the Stickney in 2013.

However, Gilbertson showed that 84 percent of the costs have gone toward "financial support" of specific projects including funding dam repairs, tree planting, bank stabilization, berm repairs and culvert work for counties or private landowners.

"There's nothing wrong with that," he said. "Your mission statement doesn't actually reflect what the board has done," he said.

The remaining 4 percent of the costs went to a category Gilbertson called "organizational support."

The board finished the session asking its members to consider what the district's mission statement should be. The board decided the issue will be picked up at the next meeting in Yankton in July.

JRWDD Manager Dave Bartel, who is not on the board but runs day-to-day operations, said he uses the existing mission statement to decide the funding requests considered by the board.

When it comes to technical support, Carol Millan, of Mitchell, said she would like to see the state's largest water districts, including East Dakota and James River, band together and have an engineer to consult on projects. She proposed the person be available to county drainage boards and she proposed a cost of $100 per scenario.

But there was also concern about the drainage boards, because some counties use their county commissioners to make those decisions.

"No offense to the people who serve on these boards, but they don't have a lot of resources," she said. "County commissioners act as the drainage board in a lot of places, and I don't know if they fully understand some of these things."

Board member Dan Klimisch said in his home Yankton County, the county requires a permit for drainage. But he said if landowners want to drain, they'll do it whether the district gives them money or not and, "there's only so much you can do with a person who doesn't want to work with you in the first place."

"We're letting everyone to ditch and drain and not caring about who's down the line," board member Clinton Bauer, of Freeman, said. "We're not cleaning up the Jim River like we started."

Water development districts have no regulatory authority under state law but Gilbertson said legal precedent is already set if one person drains their land and floods someone else's land, damages can be sought.

The JRWDD includes all of Brown, Marshall, Spink, Beadle, Sanborn, Davison, Hanson, Hutchinson and Yankton counties and 10 townships in eastern Aurora County.