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Chairwoman says river-basin task force needs to be 'super-transparent' on goals

PIERRE--Its chairwoman declared the Legislature's task force made progress Tuesday on setting up natural resource districts along South Dakota's major river basins.

PIERRE-Its chairwoman declared the Legislature's task force made progress Tuesday on setting up natural resource districts along South Dakota's major river basins.

The plan calls for elections starting in 2018 of non-partisan governing boards within the nine districts. The boards would establish water management plans for their districts.

The final boundaries of the districts need the Legislature's approval in the 2017 session so the elections can be held in 2018.

At this point, the plan calls for elections that would leave out voters who live in Class 1 municipalities that have populations of 5,000 or more.

"As far as we're concerned, this is not open and is not transparent when so many people are excluded," Paul Lepisto, of Pierre, representing the Izaak Walton League conservation group, said.

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Kim Vanneman, of Ideal, a Republican former legislator who is the panel's chairwoman, said Lepisto's comments were right on. "We have to take baby steps with some of this," she told him.

Lorin Pankratz, of Sioux Falls, representing the South Dakota Soybean Association, said there is concern among agricultural producers about what might happen if city voters are allowed to participate.

He said there is a possibility in Minnehaha County, for example, that its voters could elect six people-two from each of the three sub-districts within a river basin-who aren't producers or landowners.

Just as unclear is when the Legislature might grant taxing authority to the boards.

Also uncertain is whether the task force will proceed in planning a pilot project for one of the districts.

The Legislature wants a pilot project. But task force members sounded hesitant Tuesday.

They don't have money for the work and they don't have a clear way for learning what people in the test district might want before the 2018 elections are held.

The Red River and Minnesota River district of northeastern South Dakota would be the area for the pilot.

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Vanneman said the task force could ask the Legislature to repeal the requirement for a pilot project. "I think we're all wrestling with the same question," she said.

A second option she offered was the Legislature could decide the only election in 2018 would be for the pilot project's district. "Then, you would turn the pilot project over to them," she said.

The task force also would need to ask the Legislature for funds for planning and building the pilot project, Vanneman said.

Sen. Jason Frerichs, D-Wilmot, was one of the legislators who pushed hardest for creation of the system of river districts. "I would hate to give up on the idea of a pilot project at this point yet," Frerichs said.

Vanneman said the panel has two meetings left this year. One will be consumed with the legislation. She asked the panel whether they are comfortable in designing a plan without funding.

Frerichs suggested asking for $30,000 from the Legislature. He acknowledged it would take until end of the 2017 legislative session. "That may not be feasible," he said.

Frerichs said it's important to demonstrate to all 105 legislators what the districts would be capable of accomplishing.

He said water levels in the northeast have fallen three feet during the dry spell this summer and said it's the best time to try to manage water.

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"We shouldn't just settle for creating more and more lakes up in that area," Frerichs said.

He seemed to be the only task force member who didn't want to give up on a pilot project.

One of the citizen members, Paul Casper, of Lake Preston, sounded cautious. "We have to have something solid, concrete, that is funded and can succeed," Casper said.

"We can do a pilot but it might be to the detriment of what we're trying to get done," Vanneman said.

She said the panel must "nail down" its approach on the legislation and its vision for the districts.

"I think even to the point of putting in some timelines and whatever. At what point do we ask for taxing authority?" she said.

She said the task force must be "super-transparent with everybody where this is going."

The next meeting is Sept. 20. "I think we definitely gained some ground," Vanneman said. "We'll keep our task force moving forward in the right direction."

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