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Serving: IN

Statewide drainage task force is 1st step

Tom J. Bechman creek surrounded by trees
NEED A PERMIT? Would you need a permit to clear trees along this creek? The answer isn’t clear-cut today, but observers hope it will be in the future.
Legislators and interested parties will study key issues over next 18 months.

Farmers, landowners and farm managers have raised issues about what they can do in drainageways and who makes those decisions. Specifically, some contend that the Indiana Department of Natural Resources requires permits for cleaning a ditch bank, where permits were not required before.

Some expected legislation in the 2021 legislative session, now concluded, would have clarified who has control where. Some of these issues even spill over into what county surveyors charged with maintaining county drains can and cannot do. Instead of detailed legislation, lawmakers proposed establishing a drainage task force. It began life as Senate Bill 85.

“The idea made sense, and our members who determine policy encouraged us to support it,” says Jeff Cummins, associate director of policy engagement for Indiana Farm Bureau. “There were questions that no one could answer, and the best approach appeared to be taking a step back, collecting information, and then moving forward together.

“Our hope is that we get it right this time. Hopefully, committee members will have all the facts they need to see all angles of the issue, and they can make responsible recommendations to the Legislature.”

Key question

The Legislature established the task force. Now, one question that must be answered is whether Indiana’s current statutes and enforcement practices related to ditch maintenance and drainage are stricter than in neighboring states. Some suggest they’re even stricter than required by federal law.

“If that’s true, then we want to know why such strict measures were thought necessary,” Cummins says. “We want to protect the property rights of farmers and landowners and make sure no one infringes on anyone’s rights to manage their property properly.”

Making decisions without all the facts is a recipe for doing the process over again, Cummins says. Senate Bill 85, which passed and was signed into law, gives the task force until December 2023 to arrive at conclusions and recommendations. Cummins believes that will be ample time for collecting facts, discussing options and arriving at the best possible solutions.

Related issues

One issue in question couldn’t wait until 2024. Two families in Wayne County, Ind., were facing an order to make changes to new houses or destroy them. Controversy developed because local authorities, acting in good faith, issued building permits based on existing flood maps. Later, new flood maps were issued, and DNR was seeking action on the properties since the houses now encroach on flood plains, based on the new maps.

Senate Bill 342, passed by the Legislature, includes provisions that specifically allow an exception so these two families can keep their houses. We applaud the Legislature for having the insight to correct a situation that obviously involved good intentions.

In a separate bill, the Legislature enables DNR to set up language allowing farmers and landowners to complete certain practices on their land under a general license. In layman’s terms, that means if a practice is approved under the general license, a landowner can carry it out without obtaining a permit.

“DNR was supportive of this effort,” Cummins explains. “It will take a while to set the process in motion, but it appears to be another good step forward.”

Comments? Email tom.bechman@farmprogress.com.

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