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Committee Waters Down Watershed District Bill: No Real Power, No Cities Allowed

Senator Jason Frerichs (D-1/Wilmot) and other members of the Watershed Task Force spent last summer studying the contentious issue of drainage. They have offered Senate Bill 2 as a response. SB 2 would create nine "river basin natural resource districts" spanning counties across the state. Tiling a field in Brown County means more water drains down the James River to Yankton County, so supporters contend we need governing agencies whose authority encompasses the entire span of that watershed.

But one citizen's sensible regional water management is another citizen's additional layer of government and bureaucracy. Senate Bill 2 has thus been drastically scaled back in the Senate Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee. SB 2 would still create those nine districts on paper, but Senate ANR has amended out all the language empowering those districts to levy taxes, promulgate and enforce rules, or do much of anything other than elect council members in 2018 (two years later than SB 2 originally proposed). Action is limited to existing entities within the Vermillion River watershed working with a new task force to establish a water management pilot plan that could be used by all districts.

Senate ANR's amendment adds a provision allowing residents of a river basin natural resource district to render their district "dormant" by petition of 5% of electors and 60% of votes cast. I find "dormant" an interesting term: as far as I can tell, no other statute uses that term with respect to a political subdivision. I'm unaware of any other provisions empowering voters to put a board to sleep. SB 2 also contains no Sleeping Beauty clause to "wake up" a river basin natural resource district, so I'm left wondering if "dormant" is just a euphemism for "dead."

The amended SB 2 also appears to respond to some rural paranoia about city folks. SB 2 now excludes Class 1 municipalities from the new resource districts. By statute, Class 1 means towns of 5,000 and bigger. SB 2 as amended would thus exclude folks in sixteen towns (soon eighteen?) from participating in decisions about drainage and water quality. That's just over half of the people in South Dakota. Folks in town have as much stake in clean water and flood control as folks in the country, but apparently Senate Bill 2 isn't going to make headway in the Legislature if it gives town folk a voice.

Interestingly, the town folk on Senate ANR don't seem to mind. The committee advanced the SB 2 yesterday on a 6–3 vote. Four of the ayes came from senators from Class 1 munis. Only one nay came from a Class 1 denizen (Spearfish's Bob Ewing). The other two nays came from rural Senators Betty Olson and Gary Cammack.

The heavily watered-down watershed management bill now goes to the Senate floor.


  1. MC 2015.02.18

    any chance we can use this 'dormant' clause on other boards and committees? At the state or federal level?

  2. Lynn 2015.02.18

    Does this address the increased agricultural chemical runoff from drain tiling fields into our lakes and waterways? This can not only increase the load and cost for municipal water treatment but aquatic life and safety going running eventually to the Gulf of Mexico.

    Des Moines is going to pursue a lawsuit regarding this.

    Will tiling increase the sedimentation load downstream increasing the risk of flooding?

    Driving from the Nebraska to North Dakota border I'm seeing an increase in drain tile installation with some of that equipment in fields waiting for spring.

  3. Paul Seamans 2015.02.18

    South Dakota needs a comprehensive water management/protection plan. The DENR has lost much of its effectiveness in protecting water due to the leadership of Sec. Pirner and Gov. Daugaard. Our water is threatened by CAFO's;manure, chemical, and soil runoff; uranium mining; radioactive waste storage; oil pipelines; and city waste treatment plants. Let's throw out this watered down SB2 and come back next year with some sort of master plan. Maybe we can learn from the problems happening to our good neighbors in Iowa.

  4. Roger 2015.02.18

    I agree that SB2 should be scraped now, it no longer meets its intentions and will just make things worse.

  5. Jeff Barth 2015.02.18

    I agree with Roger and Paul.

    Farmland drainage seems to be criticized by everyone on a regular basis but what about city folk? Do we get permission from downstream property owners when we pump out a flooded basement? Do we test that water for pollutants? Do we surreptitiously pour turpentine down the drain? When it rains a lot does our city dump sewage directly into the river? When you flush pharmaceuticals where do the go?

    I could go on... and on. But the point is that we are all involved in the problems and we all need to be part of the solutions.

  6. MC 2015.02.18

    Maybe should set some kind of summer study, to come back with a plan & series of bills to make it happen.

  7. Deb Geelsdottir 2015.02.18

    I agree with MC, Lynn, Paul, Roger, and Jeff.

  8. Donald Pay 2015.02.18

    Yeah, I figured it would be difficult to implement this. Jeff Barth points out some difficulties. The water development districts have had similar urban/rural issues in the past.

    Many of the urban issues should already be controlled by NPDES permits, and cities can, if they wish, attack other water quality issues as nuisances or in setting up medication drop off centers. That said, I have had run ins with DENR about their lack of seriousness about enforcement of point source pollution control, and cities don't want to spend the money to be as clean as possible.

  9. Richard Schriever 2015.02.19

    Interesting to me that they are now excluding cities from participating. Last year, I was part of the Sioux Falls Tomorrow 2014 working group for local government services. One part of our goals and recommendations included forming watershed districts for the Big Sioux and for Skunk Creek. The original idea behind it was improving the water quality of those streams as they flowed through the city to improve recreational possibilities and health concerns. As we worked our way through we added an emphasis on also addressing the impact that Sioux Falls' had on the quality of downstream flows with equal vigor.

    At the District 6 legislative coffee two weeks ago, I handed copies of our report to the D6 legislators and had a conversation with them about another recommendation out of our working group; increasing communication and collaboration between state and local governments in regard to this and other concerns. Our working group included representatives of a variety of local government entities in the 4 county Metro area. Looks like we all just got the bird????

  10. Lynn 2015.02.19

    This is in todays Star Tribune that is relevant to a future bill.

    Jeff I agree with you that city and rural need to be considered with issues such as nonpoint source pollution.

  11. leslie 2015.02.20

    in lynn's article deborah swackhamer, U of M's 25 year plan would be worth a look, at least east river. Pirner et al. know where they want to head, no doubt, and are likely steering ANR's amendments contra Schriever's working group.

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