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Palo Alto Landowners Briefed On Pilot Drainage Project

By Staff | Jun 15, 2010

The possibility of reconstructing a drainage district as part of a pilot project to improve water quality was the topic of a special meeting of the Palo Alto County Board of Supervisors Friday morning at the courthouse in Emmetsburg. Board members met with representatives of the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship (IDALS) and landowners of Drainage District 15 in Vernon Township to learn more about the pilot project.

Dean Lemke, director of the IDALS Water Quality Initiative, opened the meeting by explaining what IDALS was trying to do.

“We are trying to develop new technology in Ag drainage and in doing so, we have been working closely with Iowa State University for the past 22 years,” Lemke said. “We all know as farmers and producers that flat lands are the best for farm production, environmentally-wise, and we also know that our soils are very susceptible to nitrates, but those nitrates also move very easily.”

 It is the movement of those nitrates, through ground water, that is the emphasis of what IDALS is working on decreasing.

“Nitrates are a problem, there is no doubt of that,” Lemke said. “You have to remember the hypoxic zone in the Gulf of Mexico, of which Iowa contributes to through water runoff into the Mississippi River. The National plan for nitrate reduction into the Hypoxic zone calls for a reduction of 45 percent by 2015.”

Latest figures from the Environmental Protection Agency show Iowa is responsible for 18 to 22 percent of the nitrate loading in the Hypoxic zone in the Gulf, out of 31 states that contribute water to the Mississippi River.

According to Lemke, wetlands have been found to be a great filter to reduce nitrate levels in ground water. Studies have shown that wetlands can remove up to 70 percent of the nitrate content of water, allowing it to evaporate into the atmosphere as nitrogen.

“What we are trying to do with this pilot program is to develop is to more cleverly design drainage systems,” Lemke noted. “Drainage systems need to have better capacity and be better able to handle drainage waters. This pilot project presents you folks with a unique opportunity. Our state clearly leads the nation in removing nitrates in our drainage systems, and other states are coming to us and asking how we’re doing it.”

 “We’re looking for five drainage districts to work with IDALS in this project,” Lemke said. “Those participating will be setting a precedent across the Midwest.”

According to Lemke, when drainage was first started in Iowa around 100 years ago, more money was spent in the state to establish drainage districts, ditches and tile lines, than was spent to build the Panama Canal. However, the majority of those drainage systems have reached the end of their practical lives, becoming undersized or unable to handle the drainage. “The goal today is to design drainage systems that are efficient to replace those old systems.”

Drainage Engineer Don Etler spoke next, explaining the three goals of the pilot project – to reduce the Hypoxia Zone, as well as improving production through better drainage, and the reduction of pollution through lower nitrate levels of ground water.

Etler presented the landowners with a preliminary plan for the pilot project – the reconstruction of DD15 North. In the plan, the existing tile mains would be replaced with larger tile at an increased grade. At the north end of the district, a wetland area would be constructed, and a short section of open ditch would be added to connect the tile main to the wetland area. The larger tile main would allow the 1,425 acres of the district to drain quicker, and would utilize the wetland to allow nitrates to evaporate to the atmosphere.

Using a 50-percent cost-share agreement with IDALS, figures the proposed project would cost $625,000, or an estimated $350 per acre for the landowners.

Stewart Melvin, Professor Emeritus from Iowa State University, explained that most drainage districts now in existence drain a quarter-inch or tenth of an inch of water a day, Modern drainage systems are engineered to remove a half-inch of water a day.

Slow drainage results in the loss of nitrogen from the soil, which results in poor crop production. Melvin noted that another factor, the opposition to improving drainage by environmental groups, is also beginning to grow across the nation.

“Improving your drainage system would help you reduce the loss of nitrates, it would reduce surface runoff and it would improve your yields by five to 10 percent,” Melvin noted. “You’d be guinea pigs with this, but if you’re a farmer, you’re a risk taker anyway.”

Using Etler’s figures, Melvin projected that the landowners would realize a nine-year payback on the investment. “You’d be part of a legacy. Our forefathers spent a lot of money to get drainage in and now you or the next generation will have to take care of that drainage.”

Supervisor Ron Graettinger, who chaired the meeting, asked the landowners in attendance what their thoughts were of the project.

“I think we’d be in favor of it,” noted Wade Lundgren, who owns land at the south end of the district.

“I think if we don’t start doing some of these things now, we won’t have these options in the future,” agreed J.R. Brown.

Etler stated he could begin the final study immediately, but asked landowners to seek wetland determinations from the Natural Resource and Conservation Service as soon as possible.

“We need to move quickly,” Etler pointed out. “If we can get all the determinations and engineering done yet this Fall, get plans and specs out in the winter and could do the construction next summer.”

The board took no official action on the proposal, but will discuss the matter further at their meeting Tuesday, June 15.