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Serving: IN

Indiana drainage issues must still be addressed

Tom J. Bechman farm pasture
CLARIFYING WATER ISSUES: Indiana’s landscape features rolling land, streams and wooded pasture. Sometimes farmers aren’t sure what they can and can’t do along streams without permits.
A state drainage task force will happen after all.

Various questions about how drainage issues should be addressed seeped into the Legislature over the past two sessions. Rather than ram through legislation, legislators opted to establish a drainage task force during the 2022 session. The bill establishing the task force passed, and Gov. Eric Holcomb signed it into law.

“We believe it was a step in the right direction,” says Jeff Cummins, director of state government relations for Indiana Farm Bureau. “There were questions about what farmers should and should not be able to do without permits along streams. The issues were complicated enough that the best idea seemed to be letting a group sort out facts and develop recommendations.”

One issue emphasizing the need for clarity revolved around changes in flood maps. The Indiana Department of Natural Resources claims jurisdiction over drainage issues. Maps changed, and two farm families in Wayne County were informed they would have to either raise the foundations of their new homes or tear them down. That’s even though they had valid building permits issued by their county.

Fortunately, legislators carved out a legislative solution exempting these two families. However, some Hoosiers still face limitations on what they can do with their property because of how DNR interprets flood maps.

No task force?

The law establishing the drainage task force spelled out who should be on it. Holcomb’s office selected resident-members, and those people were named earlier this summer.

However, before an initial meeting was held, word filtered out that the legislative leadership of the General Assembly didn’t approve the study committee. There would be no drainage task force.

“They have the right to do it, but it doesn’t happen often,” Cummins says. “We didn’t anticipate it happening, but it is well within their authority. Leadership signs off on study committees after the session ends.”

Some speculate that Indiana House and Senate leaders may have believed the issue was being addressed through other efforts. No one knows for sure why the committee wasn’t OK’d.

Back on track

The uncertainty over what farmers can do without permitting and how much authority DNR should have in drainage matters didn’t disappear just because legislative leaders pulled the plug on the drainage task force. One key question remaining is whether Indiana’s enforcement of drainage codes is tougher than in neighboring states and federal standards. If so, why? Are there valid reasons?

Fortunately, two state senators, Jean Leising from Franklin County and Jeff Raatz from Wayne County, recognized the importance of addressing these issues. They were instrumental in convincing the legislative leadership to reconsider establishing the drainage task force. As of Sept. 29, it was officially created.

In fact, Cummins and resident-appointed members of the task force have already met informally with the state senators. “We had a good preliminary discussion, and I am confident that the task force will work through these issues,” Cummins says.

Timing of how the task force will operate is still unclear, Cummins notes. Legislative appointments to the task force must still be made. Working around those legislators’ schedules could prove challenging, but Cummins is confident the process will move forward.

Here’s hoping Cummins is correct. In a state with an abundance of soils with drainage issues, drainage problems are a major headache farmers face. Let’s hope level-headed people can suggest reasonable solutions for the Legislature to consider in the future.

Comments? Email tom.bechman@farmprogress.com.

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