South Dakota: Committee to Discuss Legislation on Non-Meandered Waters Access

On June 2, an interim legislative study committee will meet in Pierre to discuss proposed legislation on the regulation of access and use of non-meandered waters.

In South Dakota, bodies of waters are classified as either “meandered” or “non-meandered”. Meandered waters are bodies of water that U.S. surveyors, during the original survey of the state, estimated to be larger than 40 acres and of a permanent nature. Land within the surveyed boundary, or meander line, of these waters became state property. Non-meandered waters were all other bodies of water that did not meet the “meandered waters” definition at the time of the original survey. Land beneath these non-meandered waters was made available for private ownership.

Since the completion of the original survey in the late 1800s, many of the boundaries of bodies of water in the state have shifted. Some lakes have grown past their original meander lines, with the new area overlaying private lands. Other non-meandered waters that were small during the time of the survey have grown to be larger than many meandered lakes. Over the years, recreationists have utilized this changed waterscape for a variety of purposes resulting in legal questions about the public’s ability to access bodies of water that have expanded to cover private lands.

On March 15, the South Dakota Supreme Court issued a ruling on the issue. The court stated that it is the responsibility of the legislature to determine whether members of the public may enter or use non-meandered water overlying private property for recreational use, including hunting, fishing, and boating. In addition, the court ordered the South Dakota Department of Game, Fish and Parks to cease any facilitation of public access to non-meandered waters until the legislature has acted on the issue. The order led the Department to close boat ramps and docks at nearly 30 lakes.

In April, an interim legislative study committee was convened to investigate the issue and propose a solution to comply with the court’s order. The committee met multiple times throughout the spring, hearing public testimony, touring affected lands, and listening to presentations from state officials. On May 24, the committee proposed legislation to address the topic.

The committee will discuss the proposed legislation and take comments from the public during their June 2 meeting. Based on discussions at the meeting, a special session may be called to consider the interim committee’s recommendations before the full legislature. Until the legislature does take action, whether it be this summer in special session or during the 2018 session, those who recreate in South Dakota will find a number of traditionally accessible waters to be unavailable. 

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