The stage has been set for a contentious public hearing Wednesday when the state Game, Fish and Parks Commission meets at the Ramkota in Pierre.
One of the items slated for a public hearing and final vote is a proposed agreement between the Game, Fish and Parks Department and the Reetz family, which owns the land surrounding and under Reetz Lake. The lake has been closed to the public for more than a year.
The agreement is aimed at reopening the lake to public use for about five months a year and with tight restrictions on the size of fish that can be harvested from it.
The proposed agreement will open Reetz Lake to public fishing from May 1 to September 30. Fish harvest would be limited to one walleye over 28 inches long, one yellow perch over 14 inches, one black crappie over 15 inches and one bluegill over 10 inches. Statewide limits would apply to all other fish species in the lake,GFP special projects coordinator Kevin Robling said during the June GFP commission meeting. Robling negotiated the deal for GFP.
From October 1 to April 30, the lake would be closed to public use without permission from the Reetz family and statewide limits would apply to all species. GFP also would pay the Reetz family a $2 per acre lease for each month that Reetz Lake is open to the public. That amounts to about $8,000 per year, Robling said.
Many South Dakota anglers oppose the deal. A total of 26 pages of public comments, the vast majority of which are against the deal, are available on the GFP website. The arguments against the agreement range from concerns about letting landowners dictate bag limits to the potential that the deal might create an opportunity for a landowner to sell access to trophy fish originally stocked into the lake by GFP. The agency’s stocking efforts are funded entirely by anglers.
“I would love to access it again but that price is too steep. I would rather see it closed for good than grant the landowner those conditions,” wrote Shane Ellwein of Fort Pierre.
Reetz Lake is in Day County and is considered a non-meandered lake because it formed during the 1990s. It’s bed, like most other non-meandered lakes, was originally sold or granted as deeded property in the 1800s. A South Dakota law passed by the legislature following a 2017 special session allows landowners to close all, or portions of, non-meandered lakes that cover their land. The expressly forbids landowners from receiving compensation for granted access to lakes they’ve closed.
The Reetz family had farmed and raised livestock in what is now the bottom of Reetz Lake for decades. But by 1996, due to increased rainfall and a rising water table, the lake had made the land unusable and had forced the relocation of several outbuildings.
South Dakota’s constitution declares the state’s surface water a public resource and charges state government with managing water on citizens’ behalf. But there is markedly less clarity on what to do about surface water that has covered private land for decades. South Dakota has been struggling with the issue since the 1990s, when the northeast portion of the state entered a wet cycle and formerly dry, farmable closed basins started to fill with water. The resulting lakes are known as non-meandered lakes.
Some of the new lakes developed healthy populations of game fish such as perch and walleye. Then, because surface water is, technically, owned by the state’s citizens, South Dakotans started fishing on the lakes. Eventually, the anglers came into conflict with the folks who owned the land under the lakes over who had more right decide how to use to the water.
The South Dakota supreme court twice weighed in on the issue once in 2004 and again in 2017. Both times the court said neither landowners, nor the public had a superior right to the water and that only the legislature could settle the conflicts. The legislature’s fix came during the 2017 special session. The new law reopened non-meandered lakes to the public unless a landowner posted them as off limits.
Reetz Lake is unique because it is entirely surrounded by private land so there’s no way to access it without trespassing. Other contentious non-meandered lakes border a public right of way, which affords legal access to the water.
Anglers were able to use Reetz Lake until the spring of 2017 because GFP had leased a small piece of land to use as a public access and for a boat ramp. The lease was canceled in 2017 as a response to that year’s supreme court decision on the non-meandered water issue. The lake had been managed as a trophy walleye fishery and had annually seen about 4,000 angler use days, Robling said.
The public hearing on the Reetz Lake access proposal is scheduled for 10 a.m. on Wednesday July 11.