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Humboldt may close drainage wells

By Staff | Dec 3, 2018



HUMBOLDT – The state has hired an engineering firm to investigate details of what would happen if wetlands are created in the area east of Gilmore City where a number of ag drainage wells need to be closed.

Creating wetlands is one option to avoid a much more costly and complex tile system, but it raises concerns with local acreage owners that their property would be flooded, according to Humboldt County Supervisor Eric Underberg.

“More information needs to be gathered to answer these questions that have come up,” Underberg said. “We have an engineering firm here, we’re going to task them to get more detailed information. If we go the wetlands route, how much water are we talking? Is that going to affect the acreages and such? They don’t have exact details. It’s mostly conjecture.”

Landowners met this week with Mike Bourland, senior environmental engineer for the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship, during the county supervisors’ meeting.

“The options presented to the landowners are to close the wells and provide alternative drainage which is fairly expensive, or close the wells and allow wetlands to be formed,” Bourland said. “Our department has contracted with Jacobs and Westergard to do some engineering on what things would look like if wetlands were created.”

Jacobson-Westergard & Associates, of Estherville, has provided studies on drainage in this area in the past.

Right now, the county supervisors don’t really have any say in what goes on; they’re just helping landowners get together with the state.

“We are just mediating this,” Underberg said.

For some time now landowners have been trying to figure out what to do with drainage wells in the area, but they face some unique challenges.

“This is at least the third major get-together about this wetlands business, this ag well closure business,” Underberg said.

Drainage wells were established long ago, and are essentially an open hole down through the rock that allows surface water to flow back into the aquifer, said Humboldt County Drainage Clerk Trish Egli.

“The (Iowa Department of Natural Resources) stopped them from doing that because of surface water contamination,” Egli said. “They’re permitted until 2019 and 2020. The DNR is not likely to renew their permits, so they’re trying to find an alternative drainage solution for these.”

Instead of tiling these areas, landowners may choose to just cap the well, then water will collect on the surface and form a wetland, Underberg said.

“One owner said I’m afraid the water will encroach on my acreage, where I live. I’m afraid it will cross my driveway,” he said.

Humboldt County historically has been “overly blessed with drainage wells,” Underberg said, due to the area’s geography and geology.

The Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship – IDALS – provides cost-sharing for closing the wells, typically paying 75 percent of a project.

“That’s pretty good for most places,” Underberg said.

But in Humboldt County, large tile systems would have to go a long way, often through neighboring land whose owners don’t really want them there.

“They’re not thrilled about having a tile system they don’t need, because they don’t have ag drainage wells, and it can disrupt their existing tile,” Underberg said.

There are still seven wells to be closed in the area, Bourland said.

Wetlands were considered because if the land is just tiled, “it would be extremely costly to the landowners in the area of these drainage wells,” Underberg said.

“A lot of the landowners are elderly. This ground has been in their family for many many years. Obviously, they would like to pass it on to the next generation. They’d like to pass it on debt-free. Some of those tile expenses … We don’t have any hard and fast numbers.”

The estimated costs given at a January meeting on this topic were as high as $5.9 million for the total project. Even with the cost share, the landowners would have to pay out an estimated $1.2 million. That’s an average of $575 an acre.

The state would pay farmers to create a permanent easement on their land, since the wetlands would no longer be able to be farmed.

“Potentially, once these wetlands would be established they would become a sort of a conservation area,” Underberg said. “Down the road, because the landowners would still own this ground, they could have a potential buyer come in – it may be the DNR, it may be county conservation, Ducks Unlimited, Pheasants Forever, who knows?”

The IDALS began a program of closing ag drainage wells in Iowa about 20 years ago. There were once 300 wells in the state of Iowa.

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