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Field of drains: Record-setting flood year raising interest in tile

After a rainy summer and fall, interest in drain tile has risen, according to one of the leading tile installation companies in South Dakota.

With record-setting rain totals in several areas, South Dakota farmers have started looking to a familiar solution to avoid flooding in the future.

After a rainy summer and fall, interest in drain tile has risen, according to one of the leading tile installation companies in South Dakota. But the number of actual drainage projects hasn't yet increased for local farmers despite coming off the busiest flood season in nearly a decade.

"There's more interest all the time in years like this," said Bryce Gillen, owner of GridLine Tile in White Lake, "but there are still a lot of people out there who still don't truly understand how it works and how long term of an asset and all the real benefits of it, too."

Tile drainage is a system that removes excess water from below the soil surface. This helps farmers avoid standing water in certain areas of their fields, which Gillen said makes the land more valuable for future generations.

"Tiling is the only asset you can depreciate on the balance sheet and actually appreciate in value over time," Gillen said. "It's not a five-year thing. It's a hundred-year thing."

Farmers have good reason to worry about standing water after floods impacted several communities in eastern South Dakota earlier this year.

According to Mike Gillispie, senior service hydrologist for the National Weather Service in Sioux Falls, the Big Sioux Basin between Brookings and Union counties was affected by the largest flood events this year.

But minor flooding also impacted land in the Vermillion Basin, on the lower James River and on the Missouri River between Fort Randall Dam and Lewis and Clark Lake.

"This was the busiest flood season in eastern South Dakota since 2010 and 2011," Gillispie said.

The flooding started in April and May due to the melting of early spring snow, which fell in April. The remainder was caused by excessive rainfall throughout the summer and early fall.

Along the James River, Scotland experienced flooding for the first time since 2012, Gillispie said, and Mitchell and Forestburg both experienced flooding for the first time since 2013.

Gillispie said 2018 will go down as the wettest or nearly wettest year in history for several locations, including Yankton, Vermillion, Centerville and Sioux Falls. Nearly all areas southeast of a line from Brookings to Winner received at least 12 inches of rain above usual this year, but some areas saw an increase of at least 20 inches, including large swaths of Hutchinson and Turner counties.

"The biggest impact on farmland from the flooding this year was the length of time that many areas were under water," Gillispie said. "Generally, fields that are flooded for several days to a week shouldn't see as much impact, but this year, there were areas under water for several weeks at a time."

More interest, fewer permits

Gillispie said there aren't many ways to protect against flooding, but building levees or installing drain tile can be effective.

Gillen said he's received more calls from across eastern South Dakota following the unusually rainy growing season, but as of now, county officials aren't drowning with increased demand.

In Bon Homme County, landowners looking to install drain tile only need to obtain a building permit before digging. Eric Elsberry, zoning administrator for Bon Homme County, said he hasn't noticed an increased interest in drain tile, judging by the number of permit submissions.

"I haven't had any more here than I had last year," Elsberry said.

So far this year, Bon Homme County has received 12 building permit requests for drain tile. There were also 12 permit requests in 2017 and six requests the year before.

Like Bon Homme County, Davison County has not yet been flooded by drain tile requests.

Davison County Director of Planning and Zoning Jeff Bathke has received six requests this year for landowner installed drainage tile. He received seven in 2017 and eight in 2016.

In fact, drainage tile requests have dropped significantly in the last few years. Davison County received 23 requests in both 2011 and 2012. After that, there were 17 requests in 2013, 10 requests in 2014 and 18 in 2015.

That's not to say drain tiling isn't effective. Bathke said low corn prices may cause farmers to postpone projects like drain tiling.

"If the price of corn is below $3 a bushel, it makes it difficult to justify installing drain tile just to get a few more acres of corn when you are already losing money on harvesting the corn," Bathke said.

Bathke also said farmers have been drain tiling fields for many years, which means at some point, all the fields that hold standing water will be tiled. If Davison County nears that point, the number of drainage projects will decrease.

Gillen also cited low crop prices as a potential sticking point, adding that potential customers may take two or three years to decide to purchase tile.

"If you look at the supplier, the amount of pipe they roll out the door isn't really up," Gillen said. "Once commodity prices turn, I think you'll see a huge spike along with equipment sales and everything else."

Deciding to dig

While it's difficult to estimate the total amount of tile laid in South Dakota, Gillen said the number of acres with drain tile is "definitely less" than 5 percent of total land in the state.

In Bon Homme County, 30 quarters — or 4,800 acres — has been modified with drain tile in the last three years, Zoning Administrator Elsberry said.

With approximately 360,700 acres in Bon Homme County, that equates to 1.33 percent of total acreage with drain tile. Numbers weren't available for previous years.

Counties closer to Minnesota and Iowa receive more rainfall and have more acres of tile installed. For example, Minnehaha County issued 1,651 permits from 1986 to 2013, according to data collected by the U.S. Geological Survey. That's an average of 61 permits per year.

And in McCook County, USGS data cited 304 approved permits from 2004 through 2011, averaging 38 permits per year.

But tiling isn't always as simple as calling a contractor. South Dakota allows counties to regulate drain tile as they see fit, and regulations vary greatly from county to county.

For example, Bon Homme County only requires a building permit, but up in Davison County, the board of commissioners established the Davison County Drainage Commission in 2011, according to the county's drainage ordinance, last revised in 2013.

Davison County landowners must apply for a drainage permit and may be required to attend a board hearing. The application requires information like:

• A detailed site plan

• A list of all landowners one-half mile upstream, one mile downstream and one-fourth mile buffer on both sides

• A proposed outlet

• And a description of any lakes, streams, ditches, etc. involved in the application.

Davison County has also coordinated its own drainage projects in the past, Bathke said. Drain tile was installed in several places throughout the county in the early 1900s, which was then assessed back to the landowners.

"We do not plan to install any new county-coordinated tile but do complete maintenance on the existing tile, when time and resources allow," Bathke said.

To the northeast, the Miner County Department of Equalization doesn't regulate drain tiling, according to Tami Severson, the county's director of equalization and zoning administrator. However, Severson said projects may need to be discussed with the county's highway superintendent if they could disrupt any roads.

As the owner of a tiling company, Gillen said conservation officials impose regulations of their own to keep landowners from draining wetlands, which serve as habitat for ducks and other wildlife. But Gillen said his company tries to avoid wetlands anyway.

"We don't want to tile wetlands. We don't want to, never have and never want to," Gillen said.

Of landowners calling Gillen to ask about tiling, he said about half knew they needed a permit. But even if someone doesn't understand the full process, he said tiling is well worth the investment to increase yields with the same input costs.

"It's a way for farmers to do more with less," Gillen said. "It seems once people start tiling, they never stop."

Of course, not all years will be as wet as 2018, and hydrologist Gillispie urged farmers to remember that.

"People also need to remember that even though we had major flooding in many areas this year, we will inevitably go back into dry drought conditions again at some point," Gillispie said, "and the more moisture you are removing from the soils via tiling, the less moisture will be available to crops in those drier years."