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Published May 05, 2014, 10:41 AM

Regulations, knowledge of drain tiles catching up with popularity

Thousands of miles of plastic pipe are being buried under farm fields every year in the Red River Valley of North Dakota and Minnesota, as farmers invest in technology to drain fields to get a faster start on planting season and, they hope, to increase yields.

By: Kevin Bonham, Forum News Service

BUXTON, N.D. — Thousands of miles of plastic pipe are being buried under farm fields every year in the Red River Valley of North Dakota and Minnesota, as farmers invest in technology to drain fields to get a faster start on planting season and, they hope, to increase yields.

It’s a trend that’s been exploding for nearly a decade. So, how much of the valley is tiled?

“That’s a darn good question that unfortunately nobody can answer,” says Chuck Fritz, director of the International Water Institute, based in Fargo.

Last year, University of Minnesota Extension Service estimated that 100 million feet of tile — nearly 19,000 miles — was installed in Minnesota alone.

The numbers likely are similar in North Dakota, officials say.

“It is expanding. At what kind of rate, it’s tough to say,” says Ross Johnson, co-owner of Agassiz Drain Tile in Buxton, N.D. “If I was to guess, in the last nine years, we’ve probably seen a 25 percent increase every year.”

Agassiz Drain Tile started in Mayville, N.D., in 2005 and moved to a larger facility in Buxton is 2011.

Agassiz is one of eight or 10 large commercial train tile installers in the valley and beyond in North Dakota and Minnesota.

Other major firms include Field Drainage Inc., based in Brooks, Minn., and Ellingson Co., a Minnesota-based company with a facility in Fargo. Several smaller companies also have started operations in the valley in recent years, too.

Manufacturing

It isn’t just tile installers.

Manufacturers have gained a major foothold in the valley, too.

One visible indication of that is at the Buxton interchange of Interstate 29, where an estimated 5.3 million pounds of plastic pipe currently are stored outside of Advanced Drainage Systems, which started production here in the spring of 2011.

Other major manufacturers have located in North Dakota and Minnesota in the past few years.

Starting with one production line and about a dozen employees, ADS now has four lines and some four dozen employees in Buxton. The company also has more than 20 job openings it is trying to fill, according to Kris Sayre, ADS regional sales representative for North Dakota, northern Minnesota, as well as Manitoba and Saskatchewan.

ADS, which makes the plastic pipe from recycled materials, has about four dozen plants nationwide, including Watertown, S.D., and Fairmont, Minn., as well as others in Canada in South America.

While he did not provide numbers, Sayre says pipe production has tripled in Buxton since the plant opened.

“I think you’d be surprised at how little of the valley is tiled,” he says. “There’s a bright future for us and others that produce it.”

Johnson says the growth of tile drainage in the valley may be on a bell curve, rather than on a steady climb.

“I think we’re going to kind of level off here for a few years,” he says. “The farm economy’s not quite as strong now.”

Few studies, regulations

Tracking the growth of tile drainage in the valley has been difficult, because few laws exist in the two states to regulate the industry. And those in place often vary from county to county and watershed to watershed.

In North Dakota, for example, legislation was passed in 2011 that allows any subsurface drainage project of less than 80 acres to proceed without a permit. The new law also eased the regulatory burden on larger projects.

Projects larger than 80 acres must apply for permits through local water resource districts. But water districts cannot deny a permit unless officials determine it is of statewide significance or the proposed drainage will flood or adversely affect downstream landowners within a mile of the project, according to Gary Thompson, who serves on the Traill County Water Resource District board and co-chairs the Red River Retention Authority.

Recently, the district has been approving one or two permits at each of its regular meetings.

Industry watchers say one Minnesota watershed district is leading the way in the development of tile drainage management.

“We’re into the millions of feet of tile in the watershed district,” says Jerome Deal, president of the Bois de Sioux Watershed District southeast of Wahpeton, N.D. “But we’re at maybe 10 percent of the district. The tiling is going on pretty much nonstop. We started out with maybe 20,000 feet of tile in a season. Now, we’re up to several miles of it. It’s hitting here first and it’s going to continue to grow northward.”

Minnesota regulates surface drainage by watershed district, rather than by county.

Bois de Sioux, with an office in Wheaton, Minn., issues permits for drain tile and requires controls on pumps and regulates when pumps can operate.

It also sets limits on how much water can be pumped from fields during a 24-hour period.

“It appears to be working,” Deal says. “Some like to pump when they shouldn’t, but I’d say greater than 95 percent of our people with tile permits are abiding by the system.”

The district also is encouraging farmers to pump water from fields in the fall, he says.

The district is in the process of adding a component to its website that will indicate with green or red lights whether farmers can operate their pumps or not in each sub-watershed in the district, which covers parts of six counties.

“It’s kind of a policing action, but you have to grow it,” he says. “This is an easy one to get neighbors mad at neighbors.”

Effects unclear

Fritz also says that while several studies have been done in recent years to show the benefits of tile drainage and how it can be managed so that it does not contribute to flooding, more studies need to be done.

For instance, he says he is not aware of any study that has examined the long-term environmental effects of tile drainage.

He referenced a 2012 University of Minnesota Extension Service study that showed that while tile drainage systems benefit agricultural production in many parts of the country, there are concerns about its potential environmental impact.

Those concerns include potential negative impacts of drainage on the hydrology of watersheds, the water quality of receiving water bodies, and the amount and quality of nearby wetlands.

“Tiling pays for itself, especially when it’s really wet,” Fritz says. “If you don’t have tile, you can’t get into the field to plant. It delays planting and it delays harvest, and can cost in yields. But I think the jury’s still out whether it’s economical, in the long run.”

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