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Published June 24, 2013, 09:59 AM

Study fine, but policy must follow

Another study of Red River Basin farm drainage will, for the first time, its sponsors say, try to determine what role, if any, surface drains play in flooding. Good luck with that.

FARGO, N.D. — Another study of Red River Basin farm drainage will, for the first time, its sponsors say, try to determine what role, if any, surface drains play in flooding. Good luck with that.

The study will be conducted by the International Water Institute. It will take a year. Its goals are to find ways to best manage existing drain systems to maintain drainage benefits to farmers and to reduce flood flows. If the study can balance those two interests, which have been out of balance for generations, it will be worth something.

But translating a study’s findings into effective water management policies well, that is quite a different kettle of fish.

History is instructive. The mandate in farm country, for as long as the Red River Valley has been farm country, has been to drain. That is, to move water off the land as quickly as possible to plant crops, no matter the impacts downstream.

Water polices and practices have been defined by a drainage ethic that, despite lip service regarding retention and wetland preservation, has not changed appreciably in 100 years.

The only real “changes” have been the sophistication of surface drain construction and the accelerating installation of tile drain systems. Those changes have advanced drainage. They have not significantly helped manage watersheds or reduced flooding on the Red River and its tributaries.

There are no effective controls on drainage, especially on the North Dakota side of the Red. Despite recent floods that have been among the worst in recorded history, the Legislature in 2011 made it even more difficult to control drainage by passing a law declaring that tile drain projects of 79 acres or smaller do not require permits, and local water boards can’t require controls.

Any resourceful farmer intent on draining a section of land can merely break up the work into discreet 79-acre projects to avoid permits and regulation. It’s a sham. It’s precisely the kind of thinking — in an allegedly responsible Legislature, no less — that works against comprehensive watershed management and flood control.

It’s no wonder a veteran of water management studies said: “There’s really no teeth in anybody’s laws to enforce the thing.” That’s the problem.

And it’s been the problem for a long time. No studies of drainage and floods, however comprehensive, will mean much if policymakers remain wedded to the old ditch-and-drain doctrine. And today, there is little indication they intend to change their ways.

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