Farm drainage is a relatively straightforward process.
Farmers bury a series of underground tile lines in their fields with the tile emptying into the open ditches that people are accustomed to seeing as they drive through the countryside.
Those ditches carry the water to lakes, streams and rivers.
The Minnesota River ends up with much of that water — the Minnesota River Basin drains 10 million acres of land, or about 20 percent of the state’s landscape.
Tile drainage was introduced to the United States in 1838 by a Scottish immigrant who labored to lay 72 miles of clay tile on 320 acres of land on his New York farm. The results were phenomenal, jumping his wheat yield form 12 bushels per acre to 60 bushels.
Farming moved slowly to the Midwest because of the lack of well- drained land, and Congress and the states in the 1850s stepped in to speed up tiling. They offered tax credits for buying tile and sold marshland at a steep discount on condition it be tiled and drained.
At the same time states began organizing local elected drainage supervisory boards — which continue today as Soil and Water Conservation Districts in Minnesota. The pace of drainage accelerated at the end of the 1800s and into the early 1900s, including during the Great Depression when the Civilian Conservation Corps was deployed to expand the drainage system in the Midwest.
Still, hand-laying heavy sections of clay or concrete tile in trenches — dug first by hand and later by backhoes — remained labor intensive and relatively expensive.
The introduction of plastic tile pipes in the late 1970s changed all of that.
Rather than having to lay individual sections of concrete tile end to end, installers only have to unroll a continuous section of lightweight flexible plastic tile.
The plastic tile has small holes in it to bring the water inside the tile line. GPS systems guide the installers as they lay the tile.
The process has become advanced and simple enough that farmers can purchase their own trencher and plastic tile, allowing them to install their own drainage systems.
No one knows how many miles of the plastic and concrete tile exist on farm fields across the Minnesota River watershed.
The only significant regulations associated with tiling are those that prevent farmers from draining an existing wetland, which can be a year-round marsh or a socalled “seasonal wetland” that has historically filled with some water during wet periods.
Farmers are not required to inform any agency if and when they tile, but they can be held accountable if it’s found they drained a wetland area.
Farmers can and many do go to the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Services office and file a form of their tiling plans.
The NRCS then reviews the farmer’s land records to make sure they are not tiling in a designated wetland area. Ryan Braulick of the Mankato NRCS office said they get 250 to 300 such requests each year with the number of requests up some this year.
“Farmers aren’t required to (file the form), but many of them do because it’s in their best interest. If they tile where they shouldn’t, they could jeopardize their enrollment in the Farm Program.”
Braulick said his office does not do any enforcement.
“We’re not wetland cops. We don’t go out and look for those who are out of compliance.”
He said the counties — under the state’s Wetland Protection Act — are responsible for any enforcement actions against improper tiling.
But with so much of southern Minnesota so thoroughly tiled — much of it before wetland protection laws were enacted — there are few cases of violations or enforcement.