North Dakota drainage project raises concerns

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Farm Forum

A drainage ditch project in North Dakota could cause problems for people who live along the James River in South Dakota.

Two years ago, Dickey and Sargent county residents in North Dakota agreed on a drainage ditch project that would send 20 cubic feet per second of water into the James River. But opponents now worry much more than that will be moving past the state line once the project is finished.

When it was originally approved two years ago, many landowners, especially those in South Dakota, said they did not know of the intentions to add additional private ditches that would drain to the main channel. Some landowners have already dug ditches on their private land, one township official said.

‘No control’

“What’s happening in North Dakota is adding to the Jim River that we in South Dakota have no control over — we have no control,” said Roger Schuller, a Brown County farmer. “We will be trapped with more water in the river from North Dakota.”

The project started as a way to get North Dakota Highway 11 and some township and county roads out from under water after flooding in 2010, said Dan Delahoyde, chairman of Jackson Township in Sargent County, N.D. But he and other residents are worried that the project has gone from one that benefits many to one that benefits few, and could possibly harm others.

Many of the affected roads have been built up since 2010, and the drainage project isn’t needed for that purpose anymore, Delahoyde said. Some area farmers want it to drain land for agricultural purposes, he said, so much so that they’ve started to dig ditches through their land, even though the main ditch has yet to be established.

“They’ve dug ditches to our right of ways,” he said.

The private ditches were dug before the main ditch because this past year has been dry and landowners have had the chance, said Steve Hanson, a Dickey County farmer and proponent of the project.

“It not only benefits me, but it benefits everyone, the way I see it,” Hanson said. “When you can channel water in the right direction that it’s supposed to go and when you have a river that’s so close, that just makes a lot more sense than to have it running all over the ground going everywhere.”

There is no immediate worry of flooding this year, Hanson said. And if there is a heavy rain, the water should sit in the ditches, rather than on the fields.

“Soil conservation is a huge deal,” Hanson said. “Quite frankly, too much water standing on this is ruining our soil conservation plans.”

Work starts soon

Construction on the project is set to begin as soon as conditions allow, said Chad Engels, water resource engineer for the Dickey-Sargent Joint Water Resource Board through Fargo, N.D.-based Moore Engineering.

The main ditch follows North Dakota Highway 11 for a stretch before heading north to meet the James River south of Oakes, N.D.

The project was approved in 2014 with a pumping station that would move 20 cubic feet per second into the James River before it hits South Dakota, Delahoyde said.

Such an amount would have little impact on people who live downstream in South Dakota, Schuller said. But as the project changes, its effect on South Dakota is still unknown, he said.

Farmers in northern Brown County expressed concerns about the project at meetings before it got approval. They don’t want extra water on their land.

In North Dakota, flooding along the river is a bit less of a concern because the river is channeled. That isn’t the case south of the border, where the water is free to spread onto nearby land.

“If they have uncontrolled draining in North Dakota, that will have an effect on the amount of water that’s in the Jim River, and it wouldn’t be good for us,” Schuller said.

Impact on taxes

The project has also had an effect on landowners’ property taxes in North Dakota, Delahoyde said. As the project has become more complicated, it has become more expensive — from one that would cost a few hundred thousand dollars to one that is now estimated at $4 million.

The project started as a simple ditch that North Dakota would allow on state right of way for free, connecting directly to the James River, Delahoyde said. A pumping station added $1.5 million to the job, and the ditch could no longer go in the right of way, so private land had to be purchased, he said.

“A lot of these people, their land taxes tripled because of this ditch,” Delahoyde said. “They just got carried away. It went from a very cheap to very expensive project. … A lot of people are paying a lot of money for a couple people to drain.”

Jackson Township is worried that the ditches will compromise the rights of way along the section lines, for which the township is responsible, Delahoyde said.

“Some of these ditches are like, 10, 12 feet deep,” he said. “If somebody drives into this ditch and gets killed, they don’t sue the landowner, they don’t sue the ditch digger, they sue the township. The township is liable for that section for the safety and health of the township.”

Without the main ditch, there’s no way to control the flow of water at the moment, Delahoyde said. And when the main ditch is excavated, the private ditches are going to increase the amount of water headed for the river, he said.

Or at least to a basin; from there, it would be pumped into the James, so there is an element of control built in, Engels said.

“You’re going to get more than 20 CFS going into the Jim River, I don’t care what anybody tells you,” Delahoyde said.

There were several conditions added to the permit for the project, including provisions for flooding, low river levels and wetland preservation, Engels said.

The plans the engineers have drawn up did factor in private ditches connecting to the larger project, he said.

Wetlands worries

The project, as proposed and agreed upon in 2014, wouldn’t cause any problems for U.S. Fish and Wildlife easements, said Mick Erickson, refuge manager for the Kulm Wetland Management District. The concern is that the project has changed and the larger scope could cause problems.

In the big picture, Erickson said he is worried about draining too many wetlands, but his agency only has jurisdiction over sevenquarter-section parcels that are affected by the drainage project.

“I’m more worried about the wetlands, whether we have them under easement or not,” Erickson said. “What I’m more concerned with, from a personal standpoint, is, by digging these channels … you now have put in the infrastructure that allows more additional drainage of many wetlands, of hundreds of wetlands.”