Green Guide

Special session set over use of lakes on private land

Posted June 12

— Lawmakers are returning to the Capitol on Monday for a special legislative session to debate rules for outdoor enthusiasts who want to use lakes on private land in South Dakota for recreation.

The issue has long vexed landowners and outdoor enthusiasts. Some key information about the session on so-called nonmeandered waters over private land:

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NONMEANDERED WHAT?

All waters in South Dakota are regarded as public property. Nonmeandered waters are bodies of water that weren't specially designated during government surveys in the late 1800s. Some private property has since flooded, forming new, unofficial bodies of water and creating good fishing, but it's come at the cost of farmland and pastures lost by agriculture producers.

There are thousands of nonmeandered lakes in South Dakota, but only roughly 90 have had fishing, according to South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks.

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WHAT'S GOING ON?

State officials are intervening after a March ruling from the South Dakota Supreme Court that said the Legislature must decide the extent the public can use nonmeandered waters on private land for recreation. Since the decision, South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks has limited access to infrastructure on more than 20 lakes in the state.

Lawmakers convened a study committee that has endorsed draft legislation.

"Status quo, to me, is not an option," Game, Fish and Parks Secretary Kelly Hepler said. "I want to get these discussions out of the hands of the lawyers into the hands of the people who want to go fishing with their families and the people that work the land."

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THE COURT

The high court ruling came after Day County landowners filed a lawsuit seeking to prevent public use of waters on their property without their permission. People had started using sloughs in northeastern South Dakota in 2001. The court found that until the Legislature acts, neither the landowners nor the public have a superior right to use the waters.

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THE BILL

The study committee's proposal would restore access to nearly 30 lakes for public recreation hampered after the high court ruling. The bill also specifies that other lakes on private property are open for recreational use unless a landowner installs signs or buoys saying an area is closed, though property owners could still grant permission to use the water. The measure would bar them from being paid for such things as allowing fishing.

Under the bill, Game, Fish and Parks would be able to negotiate with landowners to open access to such lakes for recreation. If approved, the measure would take effect immediately and would sunset in July 2021. It needs two-thirds support in each chamber to pass.

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REACTIONS

Since the ruling, business at Donna Bumann's bait shop and motel in Lake Preston has suffered significantly. Bumann said she didn't realize how much of her business relied on a lake named "Dry #2."

"If we can get these lakes open, absolutely that will help my business," said Bumann, who is generally supportive of the measure. "I've got people waiting. They haven't made a reservation yet, because they want to know, but absolutely I know that my sales are going to improve drastically."

Daugaard has said the bill balances landowners' rights with the ability for sportsmen to use public waters recreationally.

"I applaud the efforts of the summer study committee and I support the bill," Daugaard wrote in his weekly column. "It will open tens of thousands of acres of nonmeandered waters to public recreation, while respecting the property rights of landowners."

Bill Antonides, an executive board member of the South Dakota Wildlife Federation, said the group opposes the bill because it turns over water held in the public trust to private control. The outdoor sporting and conservation organization is working against its passage, he said.

"I hope the state has the foresight to not pass something bad just to fix a problem that's been decades in the making," Antonides said. "This really needs to be thought out. We owe it to future generations."

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SPECIAL SESSIONS

The gathering will be South Dakota's 26th special legislative session, said Daugaard's chief of staff, Tony Venhuizen. The most recent was in 2011 for legislative redistricting.

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