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Free Land – South Dakota Style

Posted on: October 22nd, 2016
by David Ganje

Water and land do not mix well in South Dakota. In the last few days South Dakota gave up on its disputed claim to a 500 acre three-mile-long island known as Goat Island located in the Missouri River.  The state conceded jurisdiction over the claimed island giving control to the federal government. The lack of media coverage analyzing the pros and cons of this recent withdrawal of South Dakota’s disputed Goat Island land claim is disappointing. The state had argued that Goat Island was on the South Dakota side of the river when Lewis and Clark mapped the river in 1804. This is a public matter involving a state claim to land on the Missouri River. What were the reasons for the settlement of the claim? How is it good for South Dakota? The media did not ask. The government press releases did not say. Now the island is in the hands of the feds. The hand of government did this deal, but we know not the reasons for the decision.

Property boundaries matter when your land is next to a river or a body of water.  If the river deposits land onto your riverfront by “accretion”, then who owns it?   Accretion is the gradual increase to land, notably riparian land, stemming from the movement of water.  A meandering river has no master.  Certainly man-made law has not corralled a meandering river with anything close to perfection, or to some landowners, with any degree of satisfaction. Questions come up when riverfront boundaries naturally shift due to erosion or accretion.

South Dakota has enacted several laws regarding accretion rights.  The first important section states that when land forms from natural causes gradually over time next to a stream or river such land belongs to the owner of the bank, and it does not matter whether the water is navigable or not.  The second concerns avulsion, or the violent or sudden carrying away of land by a river or stream to another part of the river or opposite bank. Under the statute the owner of the original land may reclaim the land within one year of the new owner taking possession.  And the US Supreme Court has gotten into the act by ruling in the 1970s that the doctrine of accretion applies to changes in the river caused by both artificial as well as natural causes.

One lesson to learn from old man river is:  Don’t use fuzzy boundaries for the legal description in your deeds and contracts.  That is, do not let your lawyer describe the boundaries of your land by reference to a body of water. 

It must be wonderful to be the state.  South Dakota can give land away, and it can receive control of newly formed lakes for free. In a recent law case involving a dispute over the ownership of three newly-formed lakes in the state, the state Supreme Court ruled that effective ownership of these three newly formed lakes, all on privately owned land, should be held in the name of the state.  The Parks case ruling stated the lakebeds would continue to be owned by the private landowners but the lakes and water of the lakes are to be controlled by the state for the benefit of the people of the state.  The result:  more than two thousand surface acres of land, now in the form of lakes, would be controlled and supervised by the state and not the landowners.  Surprisingly, no mention of compensation to the landowners was made for this taking. The state taketh and the state giveth away. It is wonderful to be the state.

David Ganje practices law in the area of natural resources, environmental and commercial law.

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