The cost of dredging and upgrading century-old farm drainage infrastructure as a way to manage modern, regional storm water flow should not fall mostly on the shoulders of farmers.

Yet, that’s what may happen in the Deerfield area.

Given the economic struggles of farmers in the past few years, that seems tremendously unfair.

At a meeting last month in Deerfield, about 25 local residents, mostly from longtime Town of Deerfield farm families, gathered to hear what the reactivation of a historic Dane County drainage district might cost them.

A Dane County judge agreed last year with a request from the three-member Dane County Drainage Board, to reactivate a Deerfield-area drainage district that’s been in place about century. It had been deactivated by a judge’s order in 1970, with infrastructure fixes since then left up to individual property owners.

At question at last month’s meeting was whether landowners in Drainage District 23, which stretches over about four square miles in the Town and Village of Deerfield, roughly from State Highway 73 eastward to the Jefferson County line, should together pay an engineer to assess the condition of existing infrastructure in the district.

In addition to farms, there are a few other rural property owners in the district and the Village of Deerfield is on the list to potentially be assessed due to the location of its outfall into Mud Creek from its municipal sewer plant.

The engineering study being proposed would take a look at the condition of existing infrastructure within the district’s boundaries including farm drain tiles, culverts, ditches and the main channels of Mud Creek and Koshkonong Creek that lie within the district.

The estimated cost of hiring an engineering to do that study is $10,000 to $15,000. Based on its results, landowners would decide whether to move ahead with actual fixes, and to fund those costs through assessments made by the Dane County Drainage Board.

No decisions were made at the meeting in Deerfield; more meetings are coming. The Drainage Board, which has the statutory power to assess property owners in an activate drainage district, is now gathering more information for a future meeting.

Some Town of Deerfield farmers on Feb. 13 strongly objected to their properties being assessed for most of the cost of the study, and possibly the future fixes. too. They said development throughout the Koshkonong Creek watershed is sending large amounts of storm water into the creek and into their farm ditches that tie into the creek, and increasingly overwhelming their tile systems and flooding their fields. The cost of keeping regional storm water flowing should be regionally shouldered, the said.

Deerfield-area farmers have especially pointed upstream to the fast-growing City of Sun Prairie, which is sending about 6 million gallons of water a day into Koshkonong Creek from its waste water treatment plant and municipal storm water system.

We agree that relying on a century-old network of ditches and farm drain tiles to manage modern storm water in the Koshkonong Creek watershed goes far beyond the original purpose of farm drainage districts, which was to drain farmland to make and keep it tillable. That remains, in fact, the sole statutory purpose of drainage districts in Wisconsin.

But unofficially, drainage districts are now being tapped for something never intended: storm water management. That makes some sense, with infrastructure already in place that’s designed to carry water. But charging a few rural property owners, mostly farmers, for the cost of fixing a regional problem does not make sense.

The 169-square-mile Koshkong Creeek watershed stretches from Sun Prairie southward to Lake Koshkonong at Busseyville. The watershed touches Sun Prairie, Cottage Grove, Deerfield, Kroghville, Cambridge, Rockdale and Busseyville, and a variety of towns including Sun Prairie, Cottage Grove and Deerfield, and stretches briefly into Jefferson County.

Former longtime Cottage Grove Town Chairman Eugene Skaar, who passed away in 2005, apparently once had a plan for area municipalities to cooperate on drainage issues.

A local landowner has Skaar’s notes and said on Feb. 13 he’d like to take a new look at what Skaar envisioned.

Finding a solution that fairly divides, between all property owners and municipalities in the watershed, the cost of regional storm water management, would likely involve a complicated, drawn-out conversation. Regional cooperation is never easy.

Members of the Dane County Drainage Board have suggested the authority to set up a new, watershed-wide storm water management structure might lie with the state Legislature. It might be beyond Dane County’s authority, they said.

We’re pretty sure there’s a role somewhere in all this for Dane County and for the DNR, though what that may be is unclear at this point.

We urge county government, the DNR and area legislators to take notice of the situation in Deerfield, and to consider drawing on their respective resources to help begin a regional watershed conversation.

However it’s accomplished, this is needed. We cannot ask farmers to mostly shoulder this cost alone.

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