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'Spools of black plastic everywhere': Drain tile on rise

The inside of a corrugated drain tile pipe. (Sean Ryan/The Daily Republic)1 / 3
Glen Lowrie, of GDL Ag Services in Mitchell, poses for a portrait next to rolls of drain tile that his company installs. (Sean Ryan/The Daily Republic)2 / 3
Glen Lowrie, of GDL Ag Services in Mitchell, poses for a portrait next to rolls of drain tile that his company installs. (Sean Ryan/The Daily Republic)3 / 3

With land prices as high as $6,000 an acre, farmers are out to wring every dollar they can from their fields.

For many, that means installing drain tile. "Tile" -- which is actually corrugated plastic pipe 4 inches or more in diameter -- is buried 3 to 6 feet deep in a grid pattern under fields to drain flooded land and make it more productive.

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The "tile" label is a holdover from an earlier time, when drainpipe was made from ceramic, tile-like material.

"We've seen quite an increase in tiling interest," said Glen Lowrie, owner of GDL Ag Services in Mitchell, a company that plans and installs drain tile systems.

"Farmers want their land to be more productive, and tiling is one way to gain productivity from the land you have, rather than just by buying more ground."

Tiling costs $600 to $800 per acre to install 4- to 6-inch pipe, Lowrie said.

"With land at $6,000 an acre in some places, that's about 10 percent of land cost, but it's a 30- to 40-year investment," he said.

Lowrie has installed about 300 acres of tile in Davison County.

He said tile is placed using a plow or trenching machine that is guided by GPS technology. The computerized system allows drain tile to be set at a precise depth and slope for a specific application, to an accuracy of one-half inch.

Davison County Drainage Administrator Jeff Bathke said that since the end of September 2010, applications for 7,960 acres of land have been approved for drainage work in the county, or roughly 3.8 percent of the county's 207,360 acres.

"There is no way to know how much illegal drainage has been completed," Bathke said.

Statewide, the total number of acres tiled is equally vague, said Jay Gilbertson, manager of the Brookings-based East Dakota Water Development District, which has studied drainage matters.

"There are spools of black plastic everywhere," Gilbertson said, "but South Dakota is a long way from Minnesota and Iowa, which have been tiling land for a long time. South Dakota has only been tiling in earnest for five or six years, but 20 years from now that's going to be different."

The South Dakota Watershed Task Force is doing a three-year study and will make recommendations to the Legislature in 2015 based on its findings. Those findings could a suggest a state drainage application process.

There is no state drainage law, but state law gives counties a legal framework they can use to establish their own drainage ordinances.

To date, about 17 eastern South Dakota counties have drainage ordinances, Gilbertson said, but some counties, citing high administrative costs and potential liabilities from drainage litigation, have chosen to abandon the drainage business.

Brookings, Kingsbury, Hamlin and Turner counties got out of the drainage business in 2011, Gilbertson said.

State law allows counties to charge a maximum of $100 for drainage applications, which typically doesn't come close to covering administrative costs, he added.

Davison County has chosen to remain in the drainage business. It recently updated its 1985 drainage ordinance and requires permits for new drainage projects, as well as for work to maintain existing projects.

Davison County Commissioner Denny Kiner said the aim of the revised law is to head off problems that can arise between neighbors because of drainage issues and to develop a means of accurately recording the locations of drain projects within the county.

Drainage is a hot issue, said state Sen. Mike Vehle, who supported unsuccessful legislation that would have created a uniform county drainage permit application and would have removed the current state-imposed $100 fee cap.

"I got more phone calls on SB 179 than I've gotten on any other bill I've sponsored," Vehle said. "People were worried it was against drain tiling, and it wasn't."

Vehle still thinks some kind of uniform state drainage application process is needed because drained water will flow to counties whether or not they have a drainage law.

Vehle is vice chairman of the Watershed Task Force, and that body could suggest options to deal with the growing number of drainage projects.

It will become increasingly important, he said, to deal with the drainage issues that will arise as the projects increase in number.

"There will be problems as pasture is being farmed and runoff increases," Vehle said. "Water doesn't know county lines."