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Case Study #3: Blank Checks and Runaway Drains

Problem #3 with the Michigan Drain Code

December 1, 1999 | By Patty Cantrell
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

  • Blank Checks and Runaway Drains

Reform Recommendations

  • Provide for meaningful citizen appeals.
  • Require consideration of less expensive or less damaging alternatives.

Simple Request Leads
to Mega Project

Rural residents in the marshy Thumb area of Michigan know that their vast acreages of corn, beans, and sugar beets exist primarily because of an extensive network of drainage ditches. Everyone in the Thumb also knows that drains will not pull standing water off of fields properly if local officials, called drain commissioners, fail to keep drains clear of natural debris. Dead trees fall in, pile up, and obstruct water flow. Cattails invade. Beavers build dams. Pretty soon drains back up, and farm fields are again at risk for flooding.

Signatures Unleash Big Spenders
Such high water headaches were exactly what most of the 211 residents of the Thumb's Lapeer and St. Clair counties wanted to prevent when they signed a petition in 1990 calling for county drain commissioners to clean out the Mill Creek drain. Upper portions of Mill Creek did not flow well because of 27 major obstructions, mostly log jams and beaver dams.

These Thumb residents soon learned, however, that their drain commissioners had a wildly different idea of what "clean out" meant, and that the petition they signed was actually a big, blank check. That's because, under a far-reaching water law called the Michigan Drain Code, county drain commissioners are free to run with residents' requests and charge them, literally, millions of dollars more than they ever expected to pay.

Runaway Drain
According to professional estimates, the cost of removing the major obstructions and restoring flow to Mill Creek through spot dredging of sediment-filled areas would amount to only $150,000.

An intercounty drain board, set up to manage the two-county petition, came up with a much more intensive plan, however. The board announced intentions to clear every bit of vegetation from 18 miles of the creek (far beyond the beaver dams), as well as to deepen, widen, and straighten the stream. Total cost to area landowners: $4 million.

Residents were horrified when they learned of the multi-million dollar cost and extensive stream alteration. The petition's boilerplate language included mention of widening, deepening, and straightening. But the average signer never expected that a simple cleanout could become such an expensive and destructive project. Many wrote letters requesting that the drain commissioners take their names off the petition.

"The reason I signed the petition was to remove debris," says Art Laupichler, a local farmer and real estate agent. "I wasn't interested in a full-scale dredging."

Neither was Karen Delia, a Lynn Township trustee, who also signed the petition but never expected it would threaten her township with bankruptcy.Lynn township alone was scheduled to pay $35,000 per year for 10 years for the multi-million dollar project, or 22 percent of the township's annual budget. "Putting ourselves in such financial stress would mean we would have no money to clean out any other ditches, no money to fix roads, no money for anything."

Damages No Deterrent
But that didn't stop the Intercounty Drain Board. Neither did the board's own engineering studies, which warned that the much larger Mill Creek drain would dump unprecedented floodwaters on the St. Clair County town of Yale. The town of 1,900 sits just past the point where the dredging would end, and where high water from heavy rains would spill over the drain's sides because the creek channel below is too small to carry torrential volumes.

Yale homes had always stayed high and dry even in those rare times when floodwaters covered the streets. But the engineering studies made it clear that people, such as Dick Henry, who live in a low-lying part of town, would face more flooding because of the drain "improvements" upstream.

Nevertheless, the Intercounty Drain Board decided that the landowners and local governments of St. Clair County where both elected officials and citizens were opposed to the costly and damaging project should pay two-thirds of the total cost.

Public Servants Fight the Public
Most people in Michigan give up their fights against the unfair taxation and environmental destructiveness of modern drain projects once they learn the Drain Code affords them no meaningful opportunity to influence or appeal drain decisions. But Mill Creek area residents didn't stop when their first lawsuit failed due to the fact that the Drain Code only allows residents to challenge the "necessity" of a drain, not its scope, route, or cost.

They organized a citizens coalition. They held countless bake sales. They even elected a new drain commissioner in St. Clair County to represent their concerns. But nothing they tried over nearly 10 years of struggle could change the fact that citizens have no power under the Drain Code to protect their communitys' finances and natural resources.

In the spring of 1999, the Intercounty Drain Board finally agreed to try the citizens' $150,000 alternative. Why? Because state law limits the amount of debt drain boards can go into for such efforts as fighting the public in court.

"It's taken this long, plus thousands of dollars in legal fees, just to get these guys to compromise," says farmer Art Laupichler. "It's a shame."

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