Joining forces: gaining support for drainage

Gaining community support for agricultural drainage improvement projects, one landowner at a time.
Chuck Brandel
October 23, 2018
By Chuck Brandel
Most landowners, agencies, and consultants are beginning to see the mutual benefits of implementing best management practices (BMPs) to manage water, enhance crop conditions, and improve water quality.

Multi-purpose drainage management (MDM) plans, which incorporate a combination of BMPs, tend to have the most significant impact on crop production, wildlife habitat, and water quality. However, the implementation phase of these plans require co-ordination with drainage authorities, multiple agencies, and landowners on a varying list of land practices, commitment levels, funding sources, and approvals necessary to proceed.

What's the holdup?
Why are landowners hesitant to support MDM and other drainage projects?

Landowners want to see that things work. I feel that they’re comfortable with the dependable drainage systems built one hundred years ago; however, many are unaware of the deteriorating condition of their existing system, and new ways to accomplish drainage, enhance crop production, and protect natural resources and habitats simultaneously. To get them fully on board, it is imperative that project teams build trust, introduce opportunities for outside funding, and present practical options for implementation.

Finding a win-win
What’s the best way to convince landowners that MDMs really are a win-win for drainage districts?

Bringing landowners together, listening to their concerns and priorities is the first step in building trust. Instead of pointing out individuals, strengthen the sense of the community of landowners within the watershed by encouraging each to take responsibility of one area of the project for which they are especially invested. Also, when meeting with a group of landowners, it is important to bring options for their consideration, including a good (baseline option), better (a great option), and best (a home run). Each of these options should include drainage repairs, improvements, and strategies to enhance crop conditions with a variety of BMPs. Each option should also reference the impact of potential grant and outside funding, as landowners are much more willing to introduce BMPs when these potential opportunities are available.

Most importantly, do not lead with water quality, the landowners are interested in drainage first and foremost. Introducing options without asking for commitments early on will allow the concepts to be understood first and consensus can build as the meeting progresses

Finding the funding
Funding is important to landowners, but how does one go about co-ordiating applications between landowners, agencies, and drainage authorities?

First of all, it is important to recognize that some landowners see public agencies as an adversary, with requirements that are time consuming to fulfill, making crop production more costly. Therefore, building trust and consensus among these groups are critical. Emphasizing that collaboration from multiple landowners significantly improves the drainage authority’s chances of actually securing funding verses individual landowners is a small, but nevertheless important first step in building support for co-operation. 


Chuck Brandel, PE, is the vice-president of ISG. Chuck’s significant expertise in agricultural and rural drainage is widely recognized throughout the upper Midwest and has made him a frequently requested authority and designer on many drainage projects throughout the region. Chuck understands the required processes and procedures for these projects and works closely with landowners, drainage authorities, contractors, and regulatory agencies, both in design and funding allocation.

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