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Published February 22, 2011, 09:07 AM

Does tiling cut flooding?

FARGO, N.D. — My wife and I are contemplating another season of flood fighting in south Fargo, N.D. We’ve helped fill sandbags each year for the past two years but never had to place them around our property. In 2009, I helped a family friend put 30,000 of them around his Moorhead, Minn., house. Lloyd is one of the greatest of the Greatest Generation, in my book, and appreciated the help. He’ll get it again this year if he needs it.

By: Mikkel Pates, Agweek

FARGO, N.D. — My wife and I are contemplating another season of flood fighting in south Fargo, N.D. We’ve helped fill sandbags each year for the past two years but never had to place them around our property. In 2009, I helped a family friend put 30,000 of them around his Moorhead, Minn., house. Lloyd is one of the greatest of the Greatest Generation, in my book, and appreciated the help. He’ll get it again this year if he needs it.

My city neighbors often ask me if farming practices are a major contributor to the flooding picture. I tell them I think it has an effect, but I don’t think it’s as great as people think. I think the surface drainage farmers have done through the decades probably has more impact on moving summer rainwater off of fields a bit faster so that water-sensitive crops have a better shot at survival.

Field tiling, on the other hand, could have a positive effect. It is relatively new in the Red River Valley of eastern North Dakota and northwestern Minnesota, but was ordinary in southwest Minnesota, where I started my career. I remember doing stories with old duck hunters near Heron Lake, Minn., who lamented the loss of wetland habitat for ducks. They blamed a lot of that on tiling, but most of the farmers also gained a lot of production and wealth for the region. It seems there isn’t anything that humankind does to improve something where it doesn’t cause some sort of negative effect.

A couple of weeks ago, I did a story with North Dakota freshman Sen. Larry Luick, R-Fairmont, who is a contractor and wants to see southeast North Dakota be as profitable as possible. He’d like to make it easier for landowners to get tiling permits. Luick sees tiling as vital to the improved productivity of the region’s soils, especially as excessive wetness has led to “salty” soil deposits in much of the area.

Luick operates a modest-sized organic farm in addition to his backhoe business. He thinks tiling also might solve flooding problems by creating a sponge-like effect. Other landowners agree with him as evidenced by a recent resolution by the Landowners Association of North Dakota — LAND — whose members want the North Dakota Legislature to treat tiling as a tool against floods.

Not everyone is convinced.

I got one letter from a reader who is heavily involved in Red River Valley water issues, saying Luick’s assessment seems premature. The letter writer says he’s looked for scientific data that shows tiling reduces flooding, but there is none.

“Some studies show an overall increase in the water yield from tiled ground,” he writes. “The question is one of timing. Do tiled fields contribute to the peak flows on the Red (River)? Don’t know.” Theoretically, one would expect an increase in infiltration, “but is it significant enough to reduce peak flood flows? No one knows.”

The Red River Retention Authority has looked into the question of whether tiling helps flooding, and so far with such answers from experts as, “It depends,” and “We don’t know.” The effect depends on local soil types, infiltration rates, tile design, timing of the flows, topography, geology, location, climate, storm events, soil conditions “and many other variables,” my reader writes.

But if it’s true that the tiled field yields more water than a nontiled field, the writer says it’s possible that tiling could add to flooding.

“We need more answers to all of these questions — and soon — as tiling is becoming very popular in the Red River Basin!” he writes.

He’s right there. Tile enthusiasts won’t wait.

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