A Dane County judge is being asked to revive three long-dormant farm drainage districts in the Deerfield, Waunakee and McFarland areas to help control the regional flow of storm water and sewage system wastewater.
On March 27, the three-member Dane County Drainage Board voted at a meeting in the Town of Bristol to petition Circuit Judge Frank Remington to reactivate the districts.
They collectively encompass about seven square miles of historically marshy land that about a century ago was ditched and drained by pipes, giving farmers dry land to plant crops.
The March 27 vote followed back-to-back public hearings that night for each of the three districts, that drew citizens who spoke and submitted letters in favor of the reactivations.
The three districts being considered for reactivation are among 19 still-existing farm drainage districts in Dane County, four of which are inactive and fifteen of which are active. All four inactive districts have been dormant for generations. The three districts being considered for reactivation are:
• District #23, which encompasses about four square miles from State Highway 73 in the Village of Deerfield stretching eastward to the Dane-Jefferson County line. It was inactivated by a judge’s order in 1970.
• District #12 which encompasses about two square miles southeast of McFarland near Lake Kegonsa. It was inactivated by a court order in 1958.
• District #2 which encompasses a little more than one square mile southeast of Waunakee, stretching to Lake Mendota. It was inactivated by a court order in 1955.
The fourth inactive district – District # 6 — encompasses about two square miles near Middleton’s Pheasant Branch Creek. It has been inactive since 1931.
Because no objections have been received to District #6’s dissolution, it is likely to be permanently closed.
The next step is expected to be a public hearing before Judge Remington. If he ultimately orders the three districts reactivated, the drainage board would regain the power to borrow money and to assess property owners for work that might include dredging ditches and constructing and repairing drain pipes.
The board would also regain the authority to annually inspect those districts to determine if work is needed there, and to assess property owners for the cost of doing that. The drainage board could also assess for other costs, including attorney fees and notifications of property owners, and could once again intervene in disputes between property owners.
Among the concerns discussed at the March 27 meeting in Bristol is how to pay for administrative and legal work that might have to be done before the three districts are officially reactivated, including compiling modern property owner lists to submit to the court. Longtime board member Leonard Massie said that’s a problem because an inactive drainage district isn’t authorized to spend any money. As part of the process, the board would also have to investigate whether the three districts have any old debt that needs to be paid off.
Drainage Board members are appointed by a Dane County circuit judge.
The creation of new farm drainage districts fell out of favor as the 20th Century progressed, with the State Department of Natural Resources instead focusing on restoring and retaining natural wetlands.
But scores of drainage districts created a century or more ago remain active today across the state.
Thirty-nine of Wisconsin’s 72 counties, mostly in the eastern two-thirds of the state, still have active drainage districts, according to the state Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection. The department, which regulates drainage districts, currently counts about 175 active districts statewide, laid out in an apparent random patchwork.
Wisconsin began regulating farm drainage in 1965. In 1991, drainage districts were put under the jurisdiction of county drainage boards, with the DATCP given the power to set statewide rules and standards for their operation.
They retain a purpose today, the department says.
“Unlike western states, where limited amounts of water are available for agricultural production, most midwestern farmland has too much water,” explains a fact sheet on the DATCP website.
“Consequently, farmers in Wisconsin rely on surface and subsurface drainage systems to remove water from fields in order to grow crops. These drainage systems also protect structures built below grade (i.e., basements and septic tanks) from periodic flooding. Therefore, drainage is a benefit to many who live in Wisconsin’s rural lands.”
“Drainage board members have a very serious responsibility,” adds a drainage board handbook that the department also publishes. “Drainage districts have major impacts on land use, and on individual landowners.”
Last week’s recommendation from the Dane County Drainage Board to reactivate three of its districts follows the July 2015 passage by the state Legislature of Act 55, that ordered counties to either permanently dissolve or reactivate dormant districts. The Legislature gave counties three years to respond.
In rapidly developing Dane County, drainage district ditches and drain pipes have in recent decades become increasingly relied on to help move storm water and treated wastewater that’s flowing out of sewage treatment plants. But the infrastructure has not always been properly maintained in the inactive districts, where that responsibility has been left to private property owners.
Peter Magnoni, a member of the Jefferson County Drainage Board was among those who spoke at the March 27 meeting in Bristol.
He said infrastructure in long-inactive District #23 at Deerfield, where the water flow includes output from the Village of Deerfield’s sewage treatment plant and water coming down from heavily developed upstream communities like Sun Prairie, urged Dane County to reactivate it to allow infrastructure to be publicly maintained through property assessments.
Permanently stepping away from public oversight of drainage in that area would be a problem for Jefferson County, Magnoni said.
Its Drainage District #15 picks up at State Highway 134 east of Deerfield and encompasses about nine square miles, extending eastward toward Lake Mills and southward to U.S. Highway 18 in Cambridge, and includes about 4,000 acres of DNR-controlled land, he said.
Magnoni said reactivating the Deerfield-area drainage district would help protect a recent significant investment by Jefferson County in repairs in its District #15.
Magnoni called the water currently flowing through District #15 “quite frankly a raging river,” due to heavy snow melt and storm water and sewage treatment plant water flow from upstream.
“At the present time it’s 150 to 200 feet wide and 15 to 20 feet deep and the current would be difficult to maneuver a kayak through, there’s that much water,” Magnoni said. “It’s cost us an awful lot of money just in rip-rap, because our shoreline banks are being destroyed by the water coming down.”
Magnoni went on to call Dane County’s District #23 near Deerfield “quite frankly a mess. It’s more of a swamp than a drain. It really needs to be cleaned out and maintained.”
Deerfield-area resident David Hughes wrote in a letter read aloud at the March 27 meeting that he’s reached out to both the Dane County Drainage Board and the state Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection, asking that ditches in the Deerfield area be cleaned out.
The Dane County Drainage Board in response “simply has done nothing,” Hughes wrote.
“Lack of ditch maintenance in this designed drainage system has caused many acres of flooding, crop loss and has a negative financial impact,” for property owners, his letter said. “I am in favor of the district being active and the ditches being cleaned.”
Magnoni questioned whether the Dane County Drainage Board has any plans to work with the Village of Deerfield to possibly cost-share maintenance for Drainage District #23, considering the amount of treated water the village is outputting there.
The board said no — but noted that negotiations are underway with the City of Sun Prairie to do just that, potentially cost-sharing for maintenance of two drainage districts that receive that city’s significant sewage treatment plant and storm water outflows.
“That is part of our discussion now,” Massie said.
According to a draft memorandum of understanding between the Dane County Drainage Board and the City of Sun Prairie, it’s estimated that 32 percent of the watershed area of Drainage District #8 now lies within Sun Prairie city limits; 58 percent of adjacent Drainage District #9’s watershed is also estimated to be in the city.
The Drainage Board and city are currently discussing what portion of the cost to maintain infrastructure in those two districts might be picked up by Sun Prairie.
According to a report completed for the Dane County Drainage Board in December 2018, by Resource Engineering Associates of Middleton, Sun Prairie is outputting about 4 million gallons of treated wastewater per day from its sewage treatment plant.
That doesn’t include storm water.
The report recommended that improvements in Drainage Districts #8 and #9 be made so ditches there are able to handle large volumes of water from historic storm events.
Massie, who has been involved in statewide drainage regulation since the 1960s, said he believes what’s needed is a broader regional watershed management approach to drainage.