Farm drain tile a flooding solution, advocates say
MOORHEAD, Minn.—Farmer Scott Gillespie of Johnson, near the headwaters of the Red River in far western Minnesota, said farmers can't just do it by themselves in trying to control flooding in the valley.
"When we get a lot of rain in the spring, and there's been a lot of snow in the winter and the ground is still frozen, no matter what we do, we can't stop everything," he said about what can be done on farmland to help prevent flooding.
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He knows, however, it's going to take everyone working together and there are steps farmers can take to help.
A step in that direction was taken Monday in Moorhead where two Democratic and three Republican congressmen—a lot to be in one place at one time when not in Washington, D.C.—held a House Agriculture subcommittee "listening session" on how tiling and drainage management can complement the work of the Red River Retention Authority who uses local, state and federal funds.
The authority has a lot of ground to cover as there are more than 25 million acres in the Red River Basin in North Dakota, Minnesota and South Dakota.
Gillespie, speaking after the hearing, said he was impressed with the knowledge of the panelists who made presentations to the committee, as well as the congressmen themselves who he said seemed to understand the issues involved. "That doesn't always seem to be the case," Gillespie said.
One panelist impressing him most was Brian Hefty, a South Dakota farmer and businessman who owns Hefty Seeds with his family, who gave a presentation on how just 1 million acres of the 25 million acres in the basin with drain tile installed correctly could hold back from 122 billion gallons of water up to 408 billions of gallons of water in a year.
"If, for example, you put all that water on the 32,500 acres being proposed as a staging area in the Red River Diversion, the water would be 12 feet to 38 feet deep."
Hefty said "tiling will not only increase soil's capacity to hold more water, it will also improve the productivity of cropland every single year."
With that 1 million crop acres tiled, he said, with a yield increase of 15 percent it could mean an extra $52.5 million in extra gross income each year for farmers in the valley, he said.
Of course, there are roadblocks to creating such a tiling system—another purpose of the session.
One brought up was the federal government itself, but also the public in general with many believing tiling, nutrients and farm chemicals are polluting their drinking water through runoff into lakes, rivers and streams.
U.S. Rep. Tim Walz, a Democrat who represents southern Minnesota, asked how they could possibly educate the public about how tiling might help.
The answers weren't clear. However, it was noted that some farmers with tiling systems installed years ago didn't have the technology to control direct runoffs from fields—although federal farm programs could possibly help them now make improvements
Also noted was Minnesota's new 50-foot buffer law to filter out nitrates and chemicals before they hit the streams and rivers which officials said is proven to be a big help. And newer systems have control structures that help immensely in stopping runoff in heavy rain periods and also help in storing water in the soil where it can be beneficial in drier periods in the growing season, said Kevin Paap, president of the Minnesota Farm Bureau who attended the session.
"I think the science is really there to what tiling can do to as far controlling the quantity and quality of water," Paap said after the session.
While most of the hearing talked about the benefits of tiling, there was also complaints about the how farmers who want to tile are waiting months—and possibly years in some instances—for determinations on if areas of their cropland are wetlands and thus can't be drained.
That's where the complaints about the federal government—specifically the Natural Resources Conservation Service completing their work on the determinations in a timely manner—was raised at the session. It drew the largest applause and fireworks of the session.
Backlogs have cleared up in Minnesota, but are still plaguing the prairie pothole regions in the Dakotas.
Jeff Zimprich, state NRCS conservationist in South Dakota, said the backlog there has dropped from 3,500 parcels in 2012 to 1,300 last year. In North Dakota, the backlog was down to 737, while in Minnesota it was at 325.
However, U.S. Rep. Kristi Noem—another of the five from Congress at the session—said she doesn't think the backlog is acceptable. She's has reports of farmers waiting up to two years for a determination and when Zimprich said he was working on cutting down to a time period of a growing season to complete a determination she didn't agree with that either.
That's why she said she and U.S. Rep. Kevin Cramer, R.N.D., are submitting a bill to force the NRCS to cut their wait period.
A "goal" set by the Minnesota NRCS of 30 days is what they thought was fair.
U.S. Rep. Collin Peterson, sponsor of the session, said he would support Noem's bill.
"That's how I got her to come here," he said after the session with a smile.
Leading the session was U.S. Rep. G.T. Thompson, a Republican who traveled from Pennsylvania for the meeting. He said despite what many people think, that the House Ag Committee is truly bipartisan and works well together.
The split, he said, is more between the urban and much smaller group of rural members of the House.
As far as out in the countryside, what can also help is working together—urban and rural residents, Gillespie said.