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Landowners Briefed On Pilot Drainage Project

By Staff | Oct 19, 2010

The possibility of receiving cost-share funding for the reconstruction of a drainage district as part of a pilot project to improve water quality was the topic of a meeting of the Palo Alto County Board of Supervisors Tuesday 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 South in Vernon Township to learn more about the pilot project.

Dean Lemke, director of the IDALS Water Quality Initiative, explained how IDALS came to make the offer to DD 15 South, after making a similar offer to DD 15 North earlier this summer.

“Basically, we are offering up to $4 million in cost sharing monies to develop these pilot projects for the development of new technology in Ag drainage,” Lemke explained. “We’ve been working very closely with Iowa State University for the past 22 years on this concept. 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.

“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.”

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 presented the landowners with a preliminary plan for the pilot project the reconstruction of DD15 South. In the preliminary plan, the existing tile mains would be replaced with larger tile and an open ditch would be excavated that would lead to a wetland area at the southeast end of the district. The larger tile mains and laterals would allow the 3.600 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 $1,846,917, or an estimated $513 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. Melvin went on to point out that slow drainage results in the loss of nitrogen from the soil, which results in poor crop production.

“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 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.”

“I’d say we have nothing to lose in this,” observed landowner Dale Opheim. “I’d request we go ahead and study this to see if it should be done.”

However, there was another viewpoint offered by a landowner.

“We won’t stand in the way of this project, but we need to have an income and we didn’t buy farmland to make a lake,” noted David Naig, whose property is the location of the proposed wetland of the project. “We would be interested in trading our land for some land elsewhere, if that might be possible.”

“I think everyone has to have faith in the system,” observed Craig Brownlee, who represented several landowners in the district at the meeting as a farm manager. “This appears to be an opportunity of a lifetime to address an area that has always been plagued with poor drainage.”

Many of the 18 landowners present for the meeting offered comments and questions of the officials for a time, with Supervisor Keith Wirtz, as Chairman Pro-tem, finally asking for a show of hands of interest for a study into the feasibility of doing the project. A majority expressed interest, while four landowners indicated they would not be interested in seeing any further study.

“One person from this district would have to sign a petition for the study to take place,” noted Supervisor Ron Graettinger.

“We know there are a lot of concerns that have to be addressed, and the study would do just that,” Wirtz noted as the meeting came to a close.

In other business at their weekly meeting, the supervisors suspended taxes on a parcel in Cylinder in accordance with the provisions of Chapter 427.9 of the Code of Iowa. The taxes, amounting to $100 per year, will be reinstated upon any transfer of ownership of the land. Palo Alto County Treasurer Mary Hilfiker informed the board that the suspension basically placed a lien against the property until such time when it is sold.

County Engineer Joel Fantz briefed the supervisors on a drainage concern in DD 923 in Fern Valley Township. “There is a need for some work at the beginning of the open ditch as there are some trees that need to be removed and the tile basically bubbles up at that spot,” Fantz explained. “The landowners down there are looking at a long-stick excavator contract as a means of taking care of this work.”

“Looking at the work, and checking the records on the ditch, I think you could definitely get it done for $20,000,” Fantz said.

“I think it would be the thing to do and the most economical for them,” agreed Wirtz.