One might consider it the end of an era, so to speak, when the Palo Alto County Board of Supervisors conducted public hearings on an annexation and reclassification for Drainage District 15 North on Tuesday afternoon. The pilot project to reduce nitrogen levels in ag-land drainage waters was officially completed last year, but Tuesday's hearings at the Palo Alto County Election Center officially closed the books on the project, which has been ongoing for nearly four years. A dozen landowners and representatives of landowners in the district were on hand for the hearings.
The DD15 project was identified back in 2010 as a possible cost-share pilot project for nitrate removal from farm drainage waters to address the Gulf of Mexico Hypoxic Zone. Through a federally funded project administered by the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship (IDALS), one-half of the costs of the pilot project could be paid for through the government.
When first presented in 2010, estimates for the complete reconstruction of the 100-plus year old drainage system of DD15 North were estimated at $625,000, using a 50-percent cost-share agreement with IDALS, an estimated $350 per acre for the landowners.
In Tuesday's hearings, Drainage Engineer Don Etler noted that IDALS eventually paid $2,258,610 towards the costs of the project, and that Palo Alto County would be levying $2,086,000 to cover its share of the project costs.
In his final report on annexation, Etler recommended to the Supervisors that a dozen parcels, containing approximately 211 acres of land, be annexed into DD15 North, as they have received drainage benefit as a result of the project.
Drainage Attorney Jim Hudson noted there was one objection filed to the annexation from Craig Brownlee, representing S.J. Brownlee Farms, in Section 17 of Vernon Township.
"Our lands there are tiled to the south, and are at the head end of DD15 South," Brownlee told the board. "I don't see why we would get any benefit from the new project. Our water goes to the south through our tile."
Etler responded by pointing out that during the project, a new lateral tile line, Lateral H, was extended to the edge of the Brownlee property and also noted that surface waters on the property drain to the north, towards DD15 North.
"Another reason for your annexation is that a better outlet for your drainage was brought close to your land," Hudson noted. "Under drainage law, that is a benefit to the property."
Landowner Dale Opheim raised a question regarding a 15-inch lateral tile line shown in an earlier plan for the project, asking why it had never been installed.
"That was in the original plan, when we were looking at doing this project for both DD15 North and DD15 South," Etler answered. "But, the folks in DD15 South decided they didn't want to participate and other lands beyond yours did not want to participate at that point."
"I think it was a way to save costs at an expense to me," Opheim stated.
"That's not it at all," Etler answered. "It was objected to before the work ever began."
"Well, I would ask this board to have this work done as was promised," Opheim said.
Board Chair Ed Noonan asked Opheim when he first noticed the 15-inch lateral had not been installed.
"When they were digging out there," Opheim answered. "I brought it up to Don then."
Etler agreed that Opheim had raised the question, but noted the lateral had not been approved for the project.
"I disagree," Opheim said. "This affects my costs. I feel the project is not done yet."
Again, Etler pointed out that landowners on the other side of Opheim's property did not want to connect to the project through the proposed line, which was why it was not part of the plan.
"If another lateral were installed on your land and you received the majority of the benefit from it, then you would have to pay the majority of the costs," Hudson told Opheim. "The people beyond you didn't want it. I have recollection of this discussion, too. You can put in a tile of your own and connect to the project at considerably less expense. Your money would be better spent with a private tile."
At that point, a motion to overrule the Brownlee objection and approve the annexation was made and approved unanimously by the board.
Etler then explained the process used to determine classifications and noted that the procedure to re-classify the lands was the same process that had been historically used in Palo Alto County. The reclassification commissioners evaluated the wet factor of the lands, the use factor of the drainage system by the farmland, the proximity to the drainage facilities of the land and the amount of acres in coming up with the assessments for the properties in the district.
Etler noted that as the pilot project entailed the creation of a wetland for the nitrogen nitrate reduction-water quality site, as well as the reconstruction of the drainage system. In determining the overall assessment rate, three-eighths of the cost was assessed for the water quality site, with the remaining five-eights for the drainage system reconstruction.
Once again, Opheim raised an objection.
"This project was inappropriately started and huge fines were assessed," Opheim stated. "Are those fines part of these assessments?"
"There were no penalties assessed," Etler answered. "We had an original work plan filed with the Corps of Engineers, who were about a month away from issuing the permits. They put out a public notice on the project, which is the same as approval, but the EPA filed a Cease and Desist Order over procedural things, and the District was put in a no-win situation. After lots of discussions, meetings, trips to Des Moines, a new work plan was submitted and the EPA finally lifted the order. The EPA was more difficult on this than the Corps, but no fines were ever levied against the project."
"There were threats, but no fines," agreed Supervisor Keith Wirtz.
Hudson then noted there were two objections to the re-classification assessments, one from Craig Brownlee, representing S.J. Brownlee Farms, RIC Farms, LLC, Carl & Kathryn Spies Trust, Kathryn M. Spies Trust and the May T. Morling Trust. Also objecting was Henry Helgen III, representing the Henry M. Helgen Trust.
After reviewing the procedures used to arrive at the assessments, the Supervisors voted to overrule all objections on unanimous votes, and then voted to approve the re-classification and assessment reports on a unanimous vote, as well as the assessment for the wetland mitigation assessment for the district.
"One thing we all agree on, drainage is not always fair," observed Wirtz, as the hearings ended, closing the books on DD15 North.