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    Water, water everywhere:
    By: Farwell Brown, Special to The Tribune July 01, 2002
    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 soil.

    The big ditch
          Stagecoach drivers 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 worthless.
          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 units.
          Published 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 the bottom.
          By the 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.

    Drainage promoted
          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 association.
          Following 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."
          The 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 drainage maintenance.
          Open 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.

    'Where's my farm?'
          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 farm.
          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 erosion.       
          The 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.

    ©Ames Tribune 2002
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