|Water, water everywhere:|
|By: Farwell Brown,
Special to The Tribune
|A brief history of
drainage in Story County|
|This is a story that stretches over more than a full century.
My grandfather, K. W. Brown, set the stage for us when he wrote the
town of Ames had been "laid out on more swamps and sloughs than
could be found in any other spot in Story County." Early-day Ames
had many ponds within its boundaries. Water ran across the village;
here and there footbridges were in use. The rest of Story County
could also be described as "marshy."
Before 1900, getting all
that water away from the land was of primary concern in order to
make the acreages of Story County productive agricultural
dreaded crossing the Skunk River bottoms south of Ames in those
early days. I think it was easier to go to the moon in the 1960s
than it was to cross those bottomlands in the 1880s and '90s.
The first contracts for the
construction of the big Skunk River ditch were announced in October
1893. The straightening of the river's channel began at the railroad
bridge east of Ames and ran an estimated 12 miles to the Polk County
line where it connected with the Skunk River ditch project that was
underway. As the earliest drainage project on record in Story
County, it effectively resulted in the draining of a large area of
land that had been declared
Known as the Skunk
River Drainage District, that early project was probably the largest
ever undertaken in Story County. A petition, dated October 17, 1892,
established the district. The first contract letting on the project
was dated October 7, 1893. Those first lettings involved 8.81 miles
and were divided into mile-long contract
specifications for the Skunk River ditch called for a 30-foot width
at the top of the ditch with sides sloping into a four-foot width at
mid-1890s, the project to straighten the Skunk River to the Polk
County line was complete. In the meantime, drainage ditches were dug
that emptied into the Skunk; and levees were constructed to control
the flooding of the adjacent croplands.
Today, the Skunk River ditch
is showing some wiggling and wandering but is still functioning well
in speeding the water on its way from the watershed. The old
riverbed where the Skunk once meandered can still be found a short
distance to the west of the man-made ditch. The Skunk River ditch
still adheres to a nearly-straight line all the way to the county
line south of Cambridge.
Professor W. H.
Stevenson, who had come to Iowa State College in 1902 to take charge
of soils investigations, saw a critical need for drainage
development in Iowa. Thousands of Iowa acres were too wet to be
productive. With the support of College of Agriculture Dean C. F.
Curtiss and College of Engineering Dean Anson Marston, Stevenson
called for the organization of a state drainage association. In
1904, several hundred farmers, engineers, and lawyers attended the
association's organizational meeting in Ames. Stevenson was elected
the first president of the
Skunk River project, in about 1905, farm operators activated the
earliest drainage districts in Story County by petition. Additional
districts formed since that time have brought the total number of
drainage districts in the county to 121. The result of the work of
the drainage districts has been the conversion of thousand of acres
of wet, marshy land into consistently productive farmland.
In 1913, Fred W. Beckman,
the head of agricultural journalism at Iowa State College, stated,
"When Uncle Sam cut a big ditch between two oceans at Panama the
people of America and the world stood aghast at the bigness of the
undertaking. That canal will cost upwards of $400,000,000. That's a
big sum of money, yet right here in Iowa, without blare of trumpets
and a loud noise, there has been in progress a great land drainage
work that will beat the Panama canal in its cost by at least 50
millions of dollars."
number of districts reached a peak by the early 1930s. Today,
drainage project activity consists of the maintenance and enlarging
of existing districts. It is difficult to state total costs
involved. However, the comparison made by Fred Beckman in 1913
remains a yardstick of the importance of drainage operations over
the years. In 2002, Story County will spend an estimated $33,366 in
ditches that carry water to natural stream outlets drain the
lowlands. Many miles of drainage tiles have been placed, with
careful location and depth determination in the wetlands to drain to
suitable ditch or natural stream outlets. In the 1960s, a plastic
perforated drain tubing was developed that can be laid in continuous
alignment. Installers use a special tiling plow to install the
plastic tubing at the desired depths. A high percentage of Story
County farms contain land drained by tile.
In the 1930s, the
necessity to keep water on the land became as important as it had
been earlier to get the water off the land. During the great Dust
Bowl days, an extended period of drought made people realize that
much of our rich topsoil was blowing away or being carried off in
our streams. A story was told of an Iowa farmer who retired and took
a trip to New Orleans to have one last look at his
The introduction of
farm pond development, terracing, and the use of contour farming are
factors in the control and use of water on farmlands. Today the
subject of "drainage" includes a more complex system than it did in
the days when the main concern was simply to get the water "drained
away." Properly located tiles increase the capacity for topsoils to
absorb and retain rainwater on the land. Draining the water too
extensively from farmlands produces circumstances in which topsoil,
soil nutrients and fertilizers are carried off into our streams.
The inter-relatedness of
upland drainage and bottomland drainage has become apparent. For
example, soils form their own filtering system; and some areas,
therefore, require the preservation of adequate wetland. Loss of
topsoil by erosion from the slopes is a major problem.
It is now essential to find
the balance between water drainage and conservation of our topsoil.
We must avoid flooding downstream - excessive flooding means
Ames Quarry park project presents an ideal conservation approach.
The project will prevent runoff pollution and maintain natural
filtration and the controlled use of water. As part of the nearby
Skunk River watershed, it becomes a factor in the conservation of
our water supply. Though the conservation park may be in some
contrast to the Skunk River ditch drainage system constructed over a
century ago, both projects have served and will serve the
community's essential needs.
Tribune 2002 |