The issue of non-meandered waters has been a contentious one in recent decades. Problems arose in the 1990s, when water bodies in eastern South Dakota expanded greatly, after receiving far more moisture than normal. Several legislative efforts tried to address this challenge, but the many competing opinions and interests made compromise elusive.
The situation came to a head last March, when the South Dakota Supreme Court determined that it is “up to the Legislature to decide how these waters are to be beneficially used in the public interest.” Our legislators heard that message and went to work.
An interim legislative committee held four public meetings and engaged many stakeholders. The group toured areas that have been affected. They went to Day County, Brown County, and the communities of Bristol, Webster, and Waubay. They saw firsthand the inundated areas and discussed how non-meandered waters are impacting local residents.
They met with affected agricultural producers, sportsmen and business owners. Individual committee members held still more public meetings to collect additional input. During the hearings, the committee heard testimony from more than 70 individuals, considered ten different bill drafts and adopted a number of amendments.
Through that process, the committee drafted a bill called the Open Waters Compromise to balance the interests of landowners with the ability of sportsmen to use public waters for recreation. Then during a special session of the Legislature last June, the Legislature passed and I signed the Open Waters Compromise.
The new law has since opened tens of thousands of acres of non-meandered waters to public recreation. In fact, more than 99 percent of all non-meandered water with managed fisheries are open.
This is not only a win for South Dakotans who enjoy fishing and boating. The law also protects the property rights of landowners. Since the law passed, we have seen that landowners are supportive of keeping nearly all of these waters open. Plus, this compromise has created a new positive dialogue between sportsmen and landowners.
The Open Waters Compromise included a provision to sunset the law in June so that the Legislature could consider whether it was properly addressing the issue. I am introducing a bill to extend the sunset date by three years to June 2021. This will give the new system more time to work before we consider opportunities for improvement.
After many years without a solution, we have found a promising compromise. The ambiguity between public recreational use and landowner rights has been largely eliminated under the new law, and we have a system with a relatively good balance. I hope we will give it more time to work.