The secret life of a drainage ditch

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You’ve heard the saying that the value of land is based mainly on location, location, location. But after working for many years in a conservation district, I have come to believe that the value of land is also greatly affected by drainage, drainage, drainage.

Many of the drainage systems landowners rely on have deteriorated over time and are no longer working as they once did, thus affecting the value of the land and homes. Landowners depend on ditches or subsurface drainage lines to carry water away from their property to rivers or streams. The actual drainage channels might be miles away, but if they don’t function properly, water will back up throughout the watershed.

The Ohio Department of Natural Resources is working with other agencies to find workable solutions to provide the drainage necessary for Ohio’s landowners, while at the same time protecting the quality of the waters of the state of Ohio.

In the past

Ohio’s history is linked to drainage. Early drainage efforts have improved agricultural, industrial, recreational, and residential uses by making the land more user-friendly. In a perfect world, federal, state and local agencies would maintain these systems for landowners; unfortunately in today’s economy, that is not feasible.

County ditches were constructed many years ago, some dating back to the mid-1800s. Originally, Ohio law provided the means for assessment and construction of the “county ditches” and gave the discretion to county commissioners to maintain the ditches. However, this same Ohio law did not specifically require them to do so.

These county ditches were better termed “petitioned county ditches” because various property owners “petitioned” the county, (under Ohio law) for drainage improvements that typically involved creating a ditch or dredging out an existing natural waterway to alleviate flooding problems. Monies collected from the benefiting property owners and others within the watershed were used for these improvements.

Changes

A 1957 statute required permanent maintenance funds to be set up to provide for the future maintenance of new “county ditches” that were constructed using the petition/assessment procedures in the Ohio Revised Code. However, there was a flaw — these early ditch laws didn’t include provisions for ongoing maintenance of the older projects.

This 1957 statute was NOT retroactive — meaning it did not apply to the petitioned county ditches that were already in existence prior to 1957. It only applied to those constructed after that date. Unfortunately, in most counties, most of the petitioned county ditches were constructed before 1957. As these older projects continue to age, many of them need to be re-constructed to continue providing the drainage landowners and homeowners rely on.

Many of the drainage ditches in Ohio are at a high risk of collapse and failure. Of the 30,000 miles of ditches, only 11,000 miles are being publicly maintained.

Responsibility

So who takes care of the rest? Well, this is where it can get complicated. Each county can decide who is responsible for correcting flooding/drainage problems and where the funds to do this will come from; however just because counties have the responsibility they may not have the authority for ditch or drainage problems.

Thus, each private property owner in the state of Ohio has the legal responsibility, at their own cost and expense, of cleaning and maintaining existing drainage ditches and natural watercourses on their own property. They must also keep them free and clear of obstructions to prevent drainage problems on adjoining property and township roads.

Many citizens do not understand how drainage systems work, how landowners and agencies interact to provide for drainage, and how and why environmental problems can and need to be minimized.

Survey

To address the drainage issues in Ohio, Ohio Dept. Of Natural Resources, Division of Soil & Water Conservation conducted a statewide survey to evaluate the status and condition of Ohio’s rural drainageways. Survey results revealed a lack of knowledge and appreciation of Ohio’s drainage systems as well as environmental and economic challenges.

For instance, Ohio’s drainage ditches were not originally intended to provide habitat for aquatic animals, but over the years, many of these ditches have now developed habitat features similar to those in streams. Besides the drainage infrastructure challenges, the environmental issues must also be addressed.

Drainage systems are too often a forgotten and failing infrastructure. It is very evident that the general public is looking towards local government for help in providing proper guidance and real solutions to drainage problems. Clearly, we need the involvement and assistance of many agencies, organizations, and the general public to solve Ohio’s drainage issues.

The new Ohio Drainage Manual, the first ever for Ohio, does exactly that. This manual identifies the methods and procedures communities and/or landowners can follow to protect the integrity of Ohio’s rural drainage infrastructures.

The Ohio Drainage Manual can be found online at www.dnr.state.oh.us/tabid/22294/Default.aspx. The value of land in Ohio really is affected by drainage. We must all work together to keep Ohio land valuable. Environmental stewardship is everyone’s responsibility.

About the Author

Carolyn Gabric is District Administrator for the Stark SWCD, where she has been employed for 21 years. More Stories by Carolyn Gabric

One Comment

  1. Brianna Tornes says:

    How does a landowner find out the layout of their existing drainage systems and land diagrams? I’m interested in planting several trees on our property in Washington County but unsure what all expectations to consider.

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