Orton Slough

A culvert near County Road K45 and 250th Street north of Salix, Iowa, drains excess water from the Orton Slough is shown Jan. 3. The Woodbury County Board on Tuesday killed a project to improve drainage due to rising costs.

Tim Hynds, Sioux City Journal file

SIOUX CITY | Landowners worried about a proposal to drain more runoff into Brown's Lake will have a say in any improvements to the Orton Slough Drainage District, the County Board has decided.

The board hired a consultant late last year to devise plans to move rainwater more efficiently from flat farm fields north of Salix to the lake. Landowners in the drainage district asked for improvements and would foot the bill. 

But some who live outside the district contend their concerns need to be heard too.

Mary Ellen Habben, a rural Salix resident who lives at Brown's Lake, said she fears more runoff would carry more silt, resulting in "a dead lake." That would harm wildlife and keep swimmers and boaters away as well, she said.

"This is more than just a farm issue," Habben said.

The County Board serves as the decision-making trustee for the drainage district. County officials last week mailed a letter to the 33 district landowners asking them to commit to whether they support improvements. They are asked to respond to the county engineer by April 15.

Board member David Tripp said those answers will factor heavily into whether improvements proceed.

"We'll wait and see how many of the landowners will sign off on the letter," he said.

However, he, board member Jackie Smith and board Chairman George Boykin said last week they will also consider the views of those who live outside the district.

Boykin and Tripp said they've not personally heard direct opposition to the improvement project from anyone but Habben.

Board member Jackie Smith said she's heard from two Brown's Lake residents who want the process slowed to assess how various options would affect the lake. That input is valuable, Smith said.

"No one wants to harm one area of the county to benefit another area of the county," she said.

I&S Group, of Storm Lake, Iowa has proposed three solutions, with estimated costs ranging from $432,224 to $787,786. Possible solutions include adding more underground drainage piping in the area or excavating an open ditch to carry the water south to Brown's Lake. The open ditch option is the least expensive.

I&S has been paid $26,696 for consulting fees. Of that, $21,696 will be paid by the drainage district landowners via an assessment of taxes. The county paid $5,000 to file a grant application with the state's Watershed Improvement Review Board that could pay up to $300,000 of project costs. County Engineer Mark Nahra's office has also provided some research into the project, at no additional cost.

There will be more consulting fees in the future, including providing a formal report and overseeing an informational meeting in Salix. One such meeting has been held, but a second set for late March was postponed to wait for responses to the county's letter.

Tripp said there is a lot of misunderstanding about how improvements could affect Brown's Lake. He said the board won't approve anything that will send too much water into the lake.

Tripp, who lives in Sioux City but grew up in Salix, said the drainage district has been sending water to Brown's Lake without major problems since the 1920s, long before housing sprouted around the lake.

"It has been going into Brown's Lake since before half them houses were put up," Tripp said.

Mark Godfredson, of rural Sergeant Bluff, who lives in the Orton Slough district, said he wants an improvement soon. He prefers the least costly option of excavating the ditch.

If a drainage fix advances, the County Board, acting as district trustees, will assess the costs to property owners based on the percentage of benefit they receive. Landowners can pay their assessments over several years.

Inadequate drainage in the 2,394-acre Orton Slough district has been a problem for years. The last substantial repairs were made in 1984, when piping was extended and a ditch was cleared. Field flooding from a wet 2011 spring delayed crop planting, which Nahra said prompted farmers to want changes to get rainwater off their fields faster.

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