Farmers win drainage change in Davison County

Farm Forum

Local farmers and Davison County Planning and Zoning Administrator Jeff Bathke disagreed about changes made on Aug. 20 in a proposed county drainage ordinance.

The change to the ordinance would allow landowners with vested drainage rights permission to perform maintenance work on ditches without notifying neighboring landowners. According to state law, vested rights are drainage rights acquired prior to July 1985.

The change was recommended by Dave Estabrook, of rural Letcher, who said he spoke on behalf more than 50 area farmers who were unable to attend the first reading of a proposed county drainage ordinance that would update the county’s two-page, 1987 drainage law.

“They changed some of the things that needed changing and we’ve got a pretty good ordinance now,” Estabrook said after the meeting at the courthouse in Mitchell. “We have a right to maintain our vested ditches.”

He said the proposed ordinance’s requirement to get waivers — basically permission from upstream and downstream landowners stating they have no objection to a proposed project — just made for too many complications for vested landowners.

Bathke said after the meeting that he prefers the original version and he believes giving permission to work on ditches without notification and oversight invites problems.

“I think the removal of notification leaves opportunity for abuse,” he said. “I would have preferred that the requirement remained in the law. If I owned property downstream, I’d like an opportunity to know about the water that’s headed my way.”

A similar change also would exempt landowners from notifying others when they do repairs or maintenance to county coordinated ditch projects such as Kibbee Ditch.

The up- and downstream notification requirements would still apply to all new drainage projects, Bathke said. State law requires a drainage permit for all projects that drain water onto other properties.

The proposed new drainage ordinance was unanimously approved on Aug. 20 by commissioners during the ordinance’s first of two required readings.

The law seeks to streamline the old ordinance and give the county drainage administrator — Bathke — power to approve projects within days, rather than waiting weeks for the approval of the county drainage board.

The updated 21-page law requires drainage project applicants, before starting a new project, to notify landowners one-half mile above, one mile below, and a quarter-mile to either side and have them sign a waiver stating they have no objection to the project.

The farmers represented by Estabrook objected to a similar requirement for those who want do maintenance work on existing ditches, and the commissioners OK’d his recommendations.

“We’ve got a bunch of hoops to jump through already,” Estabrook said. “If we have to jump through a bunch more hoops for the county, we’re not going to have time to farm any more.”

Under state law, starting a drainage project without approval is a misdemeanor punishable with civil fines of up to $1,000 a day.

Besides curbing potential drainage abuses, the purpose of the proposed ordinance is to give the county an accurate record of all drainage projects.

Former county commissioner Carol Millan, who farms in Davison and neighboring counties, recommended that all parties affected by a pending drainage application be notified through registered mail in order to have a sound notification record. The commissioners approved her recommendation.

Bathke disagreed with the notification requirement on the basis of cost. He said registered mail would be expensive and would not guarantee notification.

Millan, a member of the James River Water Development District board of directors, said regional drainage districts were a major topic of interest at a recent Watershed Task Force meeting in Aberdeen.

“Hopefully, the state will go to regional, or area, drainage districts that don’t follow political boundaries,” she said. “It just makes more sense, because water doesn’t know those boundaries.”

The commissioners also agreed to a change requiring project applicants to notify South Dakota One Call to determine that a proposed project area is clear of fiber optic cable, electric and water lines before starting excavations for drainage work.