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Published February 25, 2013, 10:00 AM

SD drainage bill sounds alarm in ag

Teddi Mueller, who handles industry and legislative matters for the South Dakota Corn Growers Association, says an all-but-failed bill that would standardize drainage permits statewide has drawn the attention and anger of farmers like no bill she has seen.

By: Ross Dolan, Forum News Service

MITCHELL, S.D. — Teddi Mueller, who handles industry and legislative matters for the South Dakota Corn Growers Association, says an all-but-failed bill that would standardize drainage permits statewide has drawn the attention and anger of farmers like no bill she has seen.

“One day we had 80 phone calls on Senate Bill 179,” Mueller says, adding it was the greatest outpouring of farmer concern she’s seen in her 14 years with the organization.

The farming community felt its input on the proposed legislation wasn’t being heard, she says.

“It started a frenzy on its own and I’ve never seen anything happen like that in the ag industry,” she says, noting the drainage issue is “near and dear” to farmers’ hearts.

In its original form, Senate Bill 179 would have standardized drainage permit applications, uncapped the current $100 permit fee and required engineering input on all applications. Among other things, it would have required applicants to provide a description of the impact to other property owners.

State law already allows, but does not require, counties to establish commissions for the regulation of drainage. This bill would have made applications uniform for counties that undertake regulation. It would not have forced counties to establish drainage commissions.

The bill, with some of the controversial items amended out, has been deferred to the 41st day of the current legislative session, effectively killing the bill in the 40-day session. Deferral is a polite way of tabling a bill. Theoretically, it could be revived for further discussion, but that’s unlikely.

“SB 179 was a bill — from our producers’ standpoint — that just wasn’t ready for prime time,” Mueller says.

That’s OK with bill sponsor Sen. Mike Vehle, R-Mitchell, who says the bill’s value is that it has opened discussion on the issue of drainage.

Vehle says a state Regional Watershed Task Force summer study determined that just 17 of the state’s 66 counties have drainage ordinances, with most of those regulations in southeast counties.

Misunderstanding

Vehle, who sponsored SB 179 with Sens. Russell Olson, R-Wentworth, Tom Jones, D-Viborg, and Reps. Brian Gosch, R-Rapid City, and Spencer Hawley, R-Brookings, says producers misunderstood the bill’s thrust and he and others were hammered with feedback.

“What we’re trying to do is find out where water needs to go without causing further problems to downstream neighbors,” Vehle says.

The thinking was that a more detailed permit would help deliver that data.

“I don’t know how it got going as hard as it did,” Vehle says. “There was nothing in the bill about forcing counties to get into drainage or to prohibit drain-

age; the bill is about getting good information.”

Vehle says the idea that he and other legislators were out to regulate farmers out of business was “inaccurate hype.”

“I got a ton of emails — many from producers who hadn’t read the bill,” he says.

Drainage projects have skyrocketed in number as farmers are draining historically flooded areas to take advantage of high commodity prices. There also was increased focus on drainage after two years of flooding that preceded the current drought.

“Everyone agrees that something needs to be done, but we are running very fast and furious and we need to slow down and take a look at what other data is out there before we start coming forward with bills,” Vehle says.

Growing requests

Meanwhile, farmers are hustling to install drain tile, but to do so, they must comply with not only local drainage regulations — if they exist — but also federal hurdles.

Under the terms of the 1985 federal farm bill, producers who want to maintain eligibility for farm programs must demonstrate that they are in compliance with regulations preventing the draining of wetlands.

State conservationist Jeffrey Zimprich, with the Natural Resources Conservation Service, says requests for compliance checks have grown.

The NRCS can tell producers if they have an area determined to be a wetland and if they did anything to manipulate a site that would impact eligibility for federal ag programs. It’s also a concern to some farmers that the eligibility for crop insurance could, at some point, be tied to drainage projects.

It’s up to the Farm Service Agency to determine how much a project would, or could, affect those benefits.

The Regional Watershed Task Force has until January 2015 to come up with suggestions for watershed improvement.

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