Kingsbury County gets sort of a green light for ‘maintenance’ at Lake Thompson from S.D. board

Capitol News Bureau
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PIERRE, S.D. (KELO) — What they will do, or how much it might cost, wasn’t clear Wednesday.

But the Kingsbury County Board of Commissioners received roundabout permission to start removing vegetation and sediment from Lake Thompson this fall.

Roundabout, because there’s a big catch.

The South Dakota Water Management Board said the county must clear its plan beforehand with the state Department of Environment and Natural Resources.

State board members listened to more than three hours of testimony, then went into closed session for more than a half-hour with their attorney.

Consulting engineer Jason Petersen had outlined three options for getting water flowing faster out of the swollen lake and down the East Fork of the Vermillion River:

Removing 400 feet of vegetation — mostly cattails — from each side of the 48-foot outlet that feeds into the river; or

Removing sediment from a 50-feet wide channel covering the same stretches; or

Bringing in a boat that could cut weeds a half-mile up the 12-mile-long lake and dredge some of the bottom.

Gregg Gass, the attorney for Kingsbury County, asked the state board whether the department’s OK would be necessary if the plan called only for taking out vegetation.

Jim Hutmacher of Oacoma, the board’s chairman, pointed toward some of the DENR staff, including the state’s chief engineer for water rights, Jeanne Goodman.

“If I was going to make a safe bet,” Hutmacher told Gass, “I would say clear it with them.”

Board member Rodney Freeman of Huron said assurances are needed that the outlet structure won’t be changed and the lake’s hard-pan bottom won’t be disrupted.

Board member Chad Comes of Madison, who made the motion, said dealing only with vegetation could be handled through a phone call, but using excavation equipment would need a formal review and approval.

Freeman, a lawyer, said none of this changed the board’s 2013 order that the state Game, Fish and Parks Department has rights to the lake for recreational use.

Another board member, Peggy Dixon of Rapid City, nodded in agreement.

Earlier the Kingsbury County attorney asked a department witness, Mark Rath, whether Petersen’s three options fit the definition of routine maintenance.

“The issue is making sure those criteria are met,” Rath replied.

Rath later told Ann Mines Bailey, the lawyer representing DENR, that the work couldn’t dig into the hard-pan and had to follow the configuration of the channel. Rath said he’d like to see specifics.

Jon Kotilnek, the chief attorney for Game, Fish and Parks, said the state board should have been given a plan and should have heard from a contractor how the work would be done.

Kotilnek suggested the board place a condition that the plan must be reviewed and cleared. “As long as it revolves around maintenance, GFP has no issue with it,” he said. 

Mines Bailey said DENR didn’t have a problem with vegetation removal but a sediment-removal plan had been repeatedly requested.

Without a plan, chief engineer Goodman can’t agree or disagree, she said.

“It’s just that the devil is in the details,” Mines Bailey said. “Everybody is dealing with too much water right now and somebody has to bear the burden.”

Two downstream counties, Clay and Turner, sent letters of opposition against the Kingsbury and Miner counties’ plan. Most of Lake Thompson is in Kingsbury but the outlet is in Miner.

The second witness for Kingsbury County was retired professor Jim Knight, who lives on the north end of Lake Thompson. He testified that he took measurements every mile trying to find the blockage.

Knight determined the lake dropped less than one inch per mile above the outlet but fell several feet just below it.

Knight said removing cattails this fall would help get water moving and could avert trouble when the ice breaks next spring. He said cattails in winter don’t do much to hold ice in place and there could suddenly be a lot of water next spring.

“I’m not saying it will happen. It’s certainly something the downstream community should consider as a potential threat,” Knight said.

Rancher John Bruner, who said he has 300 acres of land under water in Kingsbury County, served on the Lake Thompson task force under three past governors. He said flooding would “continually” happen because four local roads act as dikes. Their culverts are too small to handle so much water, he said.

“I am in support of cleaning the outlet and maintaining it. However that is a short-term solution,” Bruner said.

He said Lake Thompson should be be 10,000 to 12,000 acres but instead is twice that large. He suggested the state board could ask Governor Kristi Noem to seek assistance because it’s a multi-county problem.

“There’s 15,000 acres of private land that’s under water,” Bruner said. He said the situation can’t be fixed unless changes are made on the four roads.  

That led board member Leo Holzbauer of Wagner to remark: “You can’t defer the natural flow of water. ‘Nuf said.” 

Copyright 2020 Nexstar Broadcasting, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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