Drainage – history, the petition process


With all of the precipitation in 2018, we have been extremely busy fielding calls from residents about drainage issues. Standing water in yards, wet basements, erosion, sump pumps running nonstop, and ponded water on driveways are some of the common concerns. Excess water is an issue whether you are a homeowner or a farmer, and the installation of surface and/or subsurface drainage can provide relief.

Drainage has been used since colonial times because large portions of the Midwest were swampy and unsuited for cultivation. Carving productive homesteads out of wilderness required significant sweat equity to dig ditches for removing stagnant water, reducing biting insects and their associated diseases, and minimizing the stench of decay. Early settlers who could directly connect to a creek were able to achieve some success, but much of the land did not have an outlet, so landowners had to work together to build a drainage system. Around the mid 1800s, the first drainage laws were passed to guide the construction and financing of group projects. By 1884, the Ohio Society of Engineers and Surveyors reported that 20,000 miles of public ditches had been constructed, benefiting 11 million acres of land. Drainage laws have been updated many times throughout the intervening years, and the same drainage improvements that increase agricultural productivity also make Ohio’s soils suitable for homes, roads and businesses.

Rural drainage projects involving multiple landowners are administered under the Ohio Revised Code (ORC) Section 6131, also known as the county ditch petition law. This law grants the county commissioners and county engineer the authority to design and construct drainage improvement projects and assess local landowners who benefit from the improvements for the cost. These projects typically involve networks of tile (subsurface drainage) and open drainageways such as ditches (surface drainage) that receive water from a specified area, what we call a watershed. To establish a permanent maintenance fund, ORC 6137 was passed in 1957 and it applies to all 6131 projects constructed from that point forward.

In Delaware County, there is a three-way working agreement amongst the Delaware County Board of Commissioners, the Delaware County Engineer’s Office, and the Delaware Soil and Water Conservation District to handle ORC 6131 and 6137 requests. It is a highly complex process, and I have included here a very simplified outline of the steps involved:

• A petition is filed by a landowner or public body for improvements to be made in a specific area/watershed.

• The proposed improvement area is viewed by the three parties in the working agreement.

• The first hearing is held and preliminary reports are filed.

• Surveys, plans, and specifications for the improvements are made and a schedule of assessments is prepared with benefits and damages and filed.

• A final hearing is held.

• If a project is deemed to have benefits that outweigh the costs and is approved by the commissioners, then the project is bid.

• A bid is accepted and construction takes place.

• A construction assessment, plus a maintenance assessment, is levied upon each parcel of benefited land in the watershed.

From initial filing of a petition to the completion of the project may take a few years due to the amount of work required at each step, waiting periods required by law, and the number of projects requested.

Another option for improvements is a mutual agreement procedure where one or more owners desire/volunteer to join together in the construction of an improvement and are willing to pay up front for the cost of construction. These projects can be accepted into the drainage maintenance program under ORC 6137 if they have been designed and constructed according to the appropriate specifications.

Currently under the three-way working agreement, we have 14 petition projects in various stages of the 6131 process. ORC 6133 includes a multi-county procedure whereby a joint board is formed with commissioners from the counties involved. We have one project underway with Licking County and another project with Franklin and Licking counties.

Given that much of Delaware County is relatively flat, has a predominance of clayey soils, and normally receives about 38 inches of precipitation a year, it’s no wonder that water can become a problem and the petition procedure is well used. You can access the booklet, “The Ohio Drainage Laws Petition Procedure” at www.delawareswcd.org by clicking on the Resources tab. Stay tuned for next week’s article which will explain the many benefits that come from well-maintained drainage infrastructure.

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By Bonnie Dailey

Delaware Soil & Water Conservation District

Bonnie Dailey is deputy director of the Delaware Soil & Water Conservation District. For information, go to www.delawareswcd.org.

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