By George Thompson, Reporter and Farmer 
A Regional Watershed Advisory Task Force, a legislative committee charged with studying water management issues, held its third meeting in Webster last week where the message from landowners was relief from the ever rising sloughs and lakes.
The 15-member committee toured the closed basin Bitter Lake area on Sept. 15 and met with a handful of concerned citizens before holding a full day session in Webster on Monday.
Senator Jason Frerichs, D-Wilmot and a task force member felt the task force got a good feel for the water problems plaguing Day County and the northeast region.
“I think the resounding message from ag and wildlife groups is that they want to see some kind of balance,” he said. “Landowners need to have the ability to hold a two inch or more downpour. They have to have holding capacity and controlled drainage could help them.”
Frerichs said the Bitter Lake group asked the task force for moral support in their quest to get a lake outlet to channel away some of the ever rising waters.
“Those folks have been hard hit by the growth of Bitter Lake. One producer told us the water has severely impacted the way he operates. From my standpoint, we need to figure out a way to design lake levels for Bitter and Dry Lake No. 1,” Frerichs continued.
Both are closed basins.
Frerichs felt the rest of the task force is now schooled on the local water problems and aware of how any grassroots efforts to form a water management district have been thwarted.
After listening to how other states are handling their water-drainage problems, Frerichs says he would probably draw on a combination of good points from each state’s plan.
“In Nebraska water is at a premium and they’ve been at this for about 40-50 years and rolled anything to do with water into their districts which probably won’t work here,” he said. “Iowa has a similar culture to ours. They’re an ag state and pro-drainage and they’ve been successful. Minnesota has large scale state involvement both on the financial and regulatory end which probably wouldn’t fit well in this state. The big question is our state’s political will to do something.”
At the conclusion of the task force session, a handful of people testified for the record.
Tom Bizek, a Roberts County township supervisor told the task force his farm has experienced flooding for the last three years. He urged the task force to come up with a way to “allow landowners to take the top off the potholes. There’s 140,000 acres here that go to the Red River and we need to have some way to limit the damage.”
Linda Simons told the task force the state “can’t let things go. It’s not cost effective. You need to prevent problems rather than react to them,” and favors the watershed district concept.
Steve Long, a Henry producer stressed, “tiling won’t increase flooding. He blames the recent round of flooding on heavier than normal rainfall, adding “tiling has a lot of benefits.”
A Grant County landowner told the task force, “put drainage controls back in the hands of county commissioners and take it away from states attorneys.”
A Clark County landowner said there has been a lot of drainage into Dry Lake No. 1, but the lake still seems to be going down.
Former state senator Jim Hunstad, Aberdeen, said he is pro-drainage and flood control.
“The problem is how to go about it,” he said. “The laws we have in South Dakota are now a problem. We need to get together with the conservationists to make this work.”
A Volga woman involved in ditching and soils said much of the existing infrastructure isn’t working properly and is forcing water to back up into cropland.
“Clean up the ditches,” she said.
Franklin Olson, a Day County farmer felt the task force needs to control and manage water so it can get into the rivers and out of the area.
Bob Whitmyre, another Day County farmer, told the task force that his county has 140,700 acres that have been abated due to flooding. He noted there is more every year and it’s costly.
“The Bitter Lake area and a lot of others need to be drained down before winter…we need to make more storage capacity in our lakes and sloughs,” he said.
Whitmyre says it doesn’t make a lot of sense to build Mahoney Dam (for Watertown flood protection) and displace some upstream landowners when you could take part of the Big Sioux River drainage over to Bitter Lake and release it in a timely manner if there was an outlet.
Task force member George Vandel told the audience, “I am ready to start talking about where we go and what we do, but I am not optimistic we can come up with a plan for this session.”
Vandel said he would like the task force to look into doing something the local area especially keeping roads from going under water.
Another member Rich Sommers admitted, “The problem with trying to come up with a watershed district system is that there is no way to fund them. A free-for-all happened when crop insurance became available for those who drain wetlands.”
Task force vice chairman Mike Jaspers said, “Nobody expects it (water situation) to go back to the way it was, but this area needs relief. We need to look into the vested water rights on selected bodies of water.”
Task force member Dennis Feickert favors putting drainage controls back with counties while fellow task force member Kim Vanneman felt local management and “coming up with financing to get something done” are the two biggest obstacles facing this committee.
The task force talked about meeting in Pierre around the time of the governor’s budget address in early December.