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Record-setting flood year in South Dakota raising interest in tiling fields

More than 5 million pounds of drain tile are ready to ship at the Advance Drainage Systems plant in Buxton, N.D. Eric Hylden / Forum News Service

MITCHELL, S.D. -- With record-setting rain totals in several areas, South Dakota farmers have started looking to a familiar solution to avoid flooding in the future.

After a rainy summer and fall, interest in drain tile has risen, according to one of the leading tile installation companies in South Dakota. But the number of actual drainage projects hasn’t yet increased for local farmers despite coming off the busiest flood season in nearly a decade.

“There’s more interest all the time in years like this,” said Bryce Gillen, owner of GridLine Tile in White Lake, “but there are still a lot of people out there who still don’t truly understand how it works and how long term of an asset and all the real benefits of it, too.”

Tile drainage is a system that removes excess water from below the soil surface. This helps farmers avoid standing water in certain areas of their fields, which Gillen said makes the land more valuable for future generations.

“Tiling is the only asset you can depreciate on the balance sheet and actually appreciate in value over time,” Gillen said. “It’s not a five-year thing. It’s a 100-year thing.”

Farmers have good reason to worry about standing water after floods impacted several communities in eastern South Dakota earlier this year.

According to Mike Gillispie, senior service hydrologist for the National Weather Service in Sioux Falls, the Big Sioux Basin between Brookings and Union counties was affected by the largest flood events this year.

But minor flooding also impacted land in the Vermillion Basin, on the lower James River and on the Missouri River between Fort Randall Dam and Lewis and Clark Lake.

More interest, fewer permits

Gillispie said there aren’t many ways to protect against flooding, but building levees or installing drain tile can be effective.

Gillen said he’s received more calls from across eastern South Dakota following the unusually rainy growing season, but as of now, county officials aren’t drowning with increased demand.

In Bon Homme County, landowners looking to install drain tile only need to obtain a building permit before digging. Eric Elsberry, zoning administrator for Bon Homme County, said he hasn’t noticed an increased interest in drain tile, judging by the number of permit submissions.

“I haven’t had any more here than I had last year,” Elsberry said.

With 12 permit requests in Bon Homme this year and half that in Davidson County, requests have been steady, if not dropping, however.

That’s not to say drain tiling isn’t effective. Bathke said low corn prices may cause farmers to postpone projects like drain tiling.

“If the price of corn is below $3 a bushel, it makes it difficult to justify installing drain tile just to get a few more acres of corn when you are already losing money on harvesting the corn,” Bathke said.

Bathke also said farmers have been drain tiling fields for many years, which means at some point, all the fields that hold standing water will be tiled. If Davison County nears that point, the number of drainage projects will decrease.

Gillen also cited low crop prices as a potential sticking point, adding that potential customers may take two or three years to decide to purchase tile.

“If you look at the supplier, the amount of pipe they roll out the door isn’t really up,” Gillen said. “Once commodity prices turn, I think you’ll see a huge spike along with equipment sales and everything else.”

Deciding to dig

While it’s difficult to estimate the total amount of tile laid in South Dakota, Gillen said the number of acres with drain tile is “definitely less” than 5 percent of total land in the state.

In Bon Homme County, 30 quarters — or 4,800 acres — has been modified with drain tile in the last three years, Zoning Administrator Elsberry said.

With approximately 360,700 acres in Bon Homme County, that equates to 1.33 percent of total acreage with drain tile.

Counties closer to Minnesota and Iowa receive more rainfall and have more acres of tile installed. For example, Minnehaha County issued 1,651 permits from 1986 to 2013, according to data collected by the U.S. Geological Survey. That’s an average of 61 permits per year.

And in McCook County, USGS data cited 304 approved permits from 2004 through 2011, averaging 38 permits per year.

But tiling isn’t always as simple as calling a contractor. South Dakota allows counties to regulate drain tile as they see fit, and regulations vary greatly from county to county.

For example, Bon Homme County only requires a building permit, but up in Davison County, the board of commissioners established the Davison County Drainage Commission in 2011, according to the county’s drainage ordinance, last revised in 2013.

As the owner of a tiling company, Gillen said conservation officials impose regulations of their own to keep landowners from draining wetlands, which serve as habitat for ducks and other wildlife. But Gillen said his company tries to avoid wetlands anyway.

“We don’t want to tile wetlands. We don’t want to, never have and never want to,” Gillen said.