Bill would return land from abandoned irrigation project
PIERRE, S.D. - Nearly 20,000 acres acquired for the long-abandoned Oahe Irrigation Project could be returned to original owners or the state under legislation introduced by Sen. Tom Daschle, D-S.D.
The federal government bought the land in the late 1970s for a large reservoir and canals as part of an irrigation project using water from Lake Oahe. Congressional funding for the project ended because of opposition to the project from landowners and others.
"It's time we gave the former landowners a chance to buy back their lands and restore those lands to the county tax rolls," Daschle said.
It is not a new bill or a new concept, said John Cooper, secretary of the state Department of Game, Fish and Parks.
"We had this 19,000 acres of land in federal limbo. We decided that the best thing to do with this would be to pass the bill which deauthorized the Blunt Reservoir feature and the Pierre Canal feature," Cooper said.
The Flood Control Act of 1944 authorized the government to buy land for irrigation use. Under the Oahe Irrigation Project, 17,878 acres were acquired for the Blunt Reservoir and 22.3 miles of land was bought for the Pierre Canal.
Cooper said the bill allows the federal government to fulfill a long-standing debt for wildlife areas lost when the Oahe and Big Bend dams were built.
He said 13,106 acres of the Blunt Reservoir and 669 acres of Pierre Canal property are in "preferential leases," which means they are leased by the Bureau of Reclamation to the original landowners or immediate family members.
Those families will have the first opportunity to buy back the land if it released by the Bureau of Reclamation.
The other land is leased on a "non-preference" basis. The original owners have no ties to the land.
The non-preferential lands, which are those that would be turned over to GF&P under this bill, total 4,772 acres from the Blunt Reservoir and 690 acres from the Pierre Canal project. The GF&P would also receive the lands not bought back by the referential leaseholders.
The land areas that GF&P would receive would be put into a game production area. The department would pay the same assessed taxes as other landowners, and the lands would be managed for wildlife habitat and public hunting access.
The bill also creates a trust fund which would pay the taxes on the state-owned land and pay for the habitat projects.
Information from: Capital Journal
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