This article has been revised to reflect the following correction: The Lake Thompson Recreation Area is open.
One of the things many people are looking forward to in the middle of a pandemic is time at their lake homes. But many people with homes along Lake Thompson are heading into a second summer of flooding. There is a fix, but residents say bureaucratic red tape and a question over who is going to pay for it all, has owners facing another summer of not being able to enjoy their lakefront properties.
Three years ago, Todd Stokke invested more than $100,000 into lake front property and a camper to put on it.
“It’s just kind of our little place to go fishing and relax and have a good time,” Stokke said.
But instead of relaxing, he’s had a year-long headache.
Kennecke: Could you have taken it out of there?
Stokke: There’s no way I could have gotten it out of there from how it was sitting-because when the water came up, it came up so fast and it never did recede.
A township road is still flooded and some areas of the lake are inaccessible.
“You can say that two-thirds of people still cannot drive to their houses,” Jim Knight said.
Knight is a year-round lake resident who has spearheaded efforts to solve the problem. A drainage outlet filled with sediment and vegetation is preventing water from Lake Thompson from flowing downstream.
“The legal outlet level of Lake Thompson was established in 2011. Since June of last year, we have been trying to get permission to maintain the outlet. Right now the water is about seven feet over the top of that outlet,” Knight said.
But who is responsible for cleaning it out without causing downstream flooding? Last July Governor Kristi Noem toured the area.
“We believe that if normal maintenance was done, we’re going to be evaluating that through an engineering study, if we can move some water downstream in a controlled manner and that’s really the evaluation the state needs to go through.”Governor Kristi Nome said in July of 2019
Knight says the governor helped expedite a meeting with the State Water Board, which approved cleaning up the drainage area, giving the Department of Environment and Natural Resources final say on the plan.
Knight: And we have been going back and forth with them since last August, trying to get permission to do this. Every time we send in a plan, they want us to do something else.
Kennecke: Do you think this is taking unreasonably long?
Knight: Oh I think it is. I think the State Water Board, when they gave us permission to do it, one of their closing directions to DENR was your job is to enable this to be done.
Knight says they recently completed a required DENR survey of the bottom of the outlet at a cost of $5,000. Kingsbury County has contributed $10,000 to the project, but Knight expects it to run much higher.
“No one is being held responsible for doing any of this cleanup. No one is being held responsible to do it, so it’s—yeah—it needs to be done—but who’s going to pay for it?” Stokke said.
“Homeowners are getting very desperate here. And there’s been a number of them that say, ‘hey, when we’re able to do this, let us know, we’ll make donations—we’ll get this done, as soon as DENR will give us permission to do it.’” Knight said.
Stokke doesn’t agree that homeowners, who pay property taxes, should foot the bill.
“I paid $600 some dollars and didn’t get to use it one time last year. How fair is that? I’ve already given them $600 for nothing,” Stokke said.
KELOLAND News asked the DENR about the hold up on the project, what else may need to be done and the time table for excavation. We did not receive any response.
It’s not just private property that’s flooded.
While there is high water around the area, the Lake Thompson Recreation Area is open. The GFP is having an open house this weekend with free fishing and no entrance fee at all state parks.
The DENR responded to this story on May 13. Below is a chart it shared of Lake Thompson levels along with comments on the concerns at the lake.
Flooding at Lake Thompson is not a new issue. Water levels have been fluctuating above the natural outlet for many years (please see the attached chart Lake Thompson water level data) and are tied to natural wet and dry cycles. High water levels in the lake are not a man-made problem. However, any flood mitigation efforts done at Lake Thompson will have impacts on downstream landowners, counties, and communities. These impacts must be considered before mitigation actions are taken.Brian J. Walsh | Environmental Scientist Manager I | SD DENR
In 2012, Kingsbury County requested the South Dakota Water Management Board determine an outlet elevation for Lake Thompson. Following a contested case hearing and the adoption of a stipulation agreement between parties (Kingsbury County and the four downstream counties) the Board set the outlet elevation at 1687.5 feet mean sea level. The agreement was finalized in 2013 and represents a good faith effort by all the parties to ensure the downstream counties are protected.
In 2019, in response to flooding at Lake Thompson, the state advised Kingsbury County and other local officials on the South Dakota Water Management process and potential mitigation efforts that the Board could consider to minimize flooding impacts. In addition, Governor Noem toured the area and worked with impacted parties to set-up a special Water Management Board meeting to address the issue. The Board met in September 2019 and granted approval for maintenance of the outlet structure (https://denr.sd.gov/wrimage/wrinfo/wr_div3/707-3.pdf). The Board approved maintenance activities included removing vegetation from the outlet area, but excavation of silt from the channel could only be performed if a detailed engineering study was completed and approved by DENR. DENR approval was required to guarantee no structural changes to the outlet or hard bottom would occur. As mentioned above, the reason the Board required an engineering study was to ensure the outlet configuration would not be changed, the channel bottom would not be disturbed, and, most importantly, downstream landowners, counties, and communities would not be impacted.
Below is a timeline of correspondence DENR has had on this issue since the September 11, 2019, special board meeting. Note – these records are available for public review at the link provided above.
October 8, 2019 – Kingsbury County filed an outlet maintenance plan with DENR
October 11, 2019 – DENR responded to the County informing them the plan did not provide the necessary engineering plans and safeguards to ensure the channel bottom would not be disturbed
November 8, 2019 – Kingsbury County filed an amended outlet maintenance plan with DENR
November 20, 2019 – DENR responded to the County informing them that the plan lacked the proper safeguards and engineering controls to ensure the contractor could execute the plan without impacting the channel bottom
December 4, 2019 – Kingsbury County filed a letter with DENR requesting permission to conduct only vegetation removal from the outlet
December 5, 2019 – DENR sent a letter to the County approving the vegetation removal plan
To DENR’s knowledge, Kingsbury County has not executed the approved vegetation removal plan.
Flooding at Lake Thompson is a complicated issue with no easy solutions. However, DENR has been and will continue to be responsive to the impacted parties and work to ensure the requirements imposed by the Water Management Board are upheld.