Draining the Land

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Draining the Land

Postby h2ofwlr » Thu Feb 03, 2005 7:09 am

Dennis Anderson: Draining the Land
Dennis Anderson, Star Tribune
January 23, 2005 ANDY0123


Wetlands, now valued by Minnesotans -- but hardly preserved -- were once considered a scourge, here and elsewhere in the eastern United States.

In part this was because wetlands impeded settlement. For this reason, in 1849, the federal government passed its first Swamplands Act. In the Midwest, some 65 million acres of marshes (about 5 million of which lay in Minnesota) were given to 15 states by the U.S. -- with the provision the wetlands be drained to clear the way for settlers and their crops.

Beginning in the 1850s, settlers regularly arrived in southern and western Minnesota. Much about the area attracted them, but not its marshes and the hordes of mosquitoes they produced. Threatening also were the grassfires that occasionally swept across the prairie.

The vast wetlands of southern and western Minnesota were home to countless ducks and other wildlife that in many instances provided food for settlers. Ultimately, however, they proved more valuable drained and plowed.

In Minnesota, drainage was authorized by the State Drainage Commission, which included the governor, secretary of state and auditor, and between 1901 and 1930, the commission -- aided by county drainage commissions -- drained the 5 million acres given the state by the federal government.

The arrival of settlers in Minnesota was accompanied over the years by the introduction in wetlands of non-native plants such as curly-leaf pondweed, reed canary grass, purple loosestrife and Eurasian watermilfoil. Each has altered the composition of wetlands and their ability to sustain native organisms and wildlife.

Muskrats, for example, were once wildly abundant in Minnesota's southern wetlands. Now they are not.

In 1836, Joseph Laframboise, a French-Indian trader, told a visitor to his southwest Minnesota trading post of the plentiful wildlife in the area. "I have plenty of buffalo robes," he said. "We can give you plenty of buffalo meat and tongues, wild geese, and ducks, prairie hens, young swan, beaver tails, pigeons ... there is plenty of sport here and in a short distance you will find buffalo."

Unwanted by the settlers, however, were other wildlife spawned by the area's landscape, especially blackbirds, which feasted on farmers' grain.

In 1913, the Lake Wilson (Minn.) Pilot newspaper quoted farmer Charles Swan, saying: "The progressive farmers out there feel that the time has come when they can no longer afford to have a duck and rat pond represent a part of their farms when it can and will represent the best paying part."

Urban areas also drained

All across the United States, at the turn of the last century, wetlands were being drained -- not only in rural areas, but in and near cities. Diseases, particularly malaria, were linked to "swamplands," further arguing for their drainage.

Manifest destiny and its variations -- including national pride, purpose and identity -- also influenced the nationwide conversion of wetlands to croplands.

An effort was even made in some quarters to demonize wetlands. In 1851, Louisiana Sen. Solomon Downs characterized wetlands as "evils" requiring "redemption."

It is now known that much of this thinking was backward: Rather than a source, essentially, of death, wetlands encourage life, including that of people.

But too much money was to be gained between 1850 and 1950 not to drain wetlands as readily as possible.

Aiding this effort was the establishment throughout the countryside, like fingers, of railways, each of which served as a conduit by which settlers and other property owners could move commodities to market.

And evermore commodities were needed, because the East Coast was fast becoming urbanized.

Speeding changes -- and facilitating further wetland loss -- were advancements in the design and production of ditch-digging machines.

Fight to save wetlands

In 1951, the Minnesota Conservation Department, forerunner to the DNR, began a "Save the Wetlands" program. The effort was begun with a relative pittance -- $50,000 -- considering the money spent on drainage.

Still, the program has yielded results, and today wetlands saved beginning in the 1950s represent individual properties in the state's Wildlife Management Area system.

But the "Save the Wetlands" plan and its progeny never have stopped wetland drainage. In Cerro Gordo Township in Lac qui Parle County, for instance, there were 1,668 acres of wetlands in 1954, 627 acres in 1962 and fewer than 400 in 1972.

Today, across Minnesota, there are far fewer still. Worse, many wetlands that remain are degraded by rapid fluctuations of water levels; the presence of carp, fathead minnows and other fish; and the almost total absence, in some cases, of native vegetation favored by ducks and other wildlife.

Sources: "Discovering the Unknown Landscape, A History of America's Wetlands," (Island Press) by Ann Vileisis; "Draining the Great Oasis, An Environmental History of Murray County, Minnesota," (Crossings Press) edited by Anthony J. Amato, Janet Timmerman and Joseph A. Amato; "A History of Drainage Law in Minnesota With Special Emphasis on the Legal Status of Wetlands," (Water Resources Research Center, University of Minnesota) by K. Elton King.

AHEAD | NEXT IN THIS SERIES

The impact of carp on wetlands and wildlife. Changing farming practices. The importance of grasslands to duck production. Minnow and fish-rearing in Minnesota wetlands and their effects on wetland quality. And what of the future -- can wetlands and clean water be restored in Minnesota? If so, how?
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Postby Trois_beaux_canards » Thu Feb 03, 2005 10:13 pm

I must have missed the paper that day, thank you for your commitment to putting these articles up! Even those outside of Minnesota should see these writings, it is important to understand the history behind our cause. Well done H20! And thank you Dennis Anderson for being the man on the soapbox.
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Postby Marshmaster » Fri Feb 04, 2005 5:47 pm

"Draining the Great Oasis" in part describes the draining of four shallow prairie lakes in Murray County(Great Oasis, Bear, Rush, and Crooked lakes) that covered more than six thousand acres(nearly 10 square miles). The ditch that drained these bodies of water is referred to as either the Bear Lake Ditch or Murray County ditch #20. The book also describes additional development in the county over the years and how the landscape was changed by man.

The petition to create the ditch was signed on July 22nd, 1909 by eighteen landowners around the lakes. Legal wrangling by opponents of the ditch delayed the work until the spring of 1912 but by November of 1913, these lakes were no more as over 16 miles of main and lateral ditches removed most of the water. And if you were to walk the ditch as described by the authors, you might even come upon some of the coal that was used to fire the boiler on the dredge that did the work.

For those of you that don't know your geography, Murray County is in SW Minnesota and the area described is only about 30 miles from Heron Lake.

The original cost of the project was in the neighborhood of $43,000. In 1989, a ditch cleaning project to restore the ditch to its original elevations cost in the area of $200,000 or five times the original price.

The great majority of drainage in Murray County took place between 1905 and 1925 with 79 miles of open ditches and 489 miles of underground tile draining 44,984 acres of land in 1920 when the first agricultural census was done. By 1930, ditch mileage remained virually the same but tiling had expanded to well over 200,000 acres. By 1940, 86 of the current 89 ditch systems were completed and accounted for 83.9 miles and tile lines accounted for another 784 miles. In the 1990's, 89 ditch systems ran for 101 miles and who knows now how many miles of tile are running underground as the last known numbers are from 1940.

Beginning with an estimated 55,000 acres of wetlands at the time of settlement, Murray County is sitting with less than 28%(~15,000 acres) of its presettlement wetlands and possibly even less as the book was written in 2001 and even then was relying on old data.

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Postby #1Waterfowler » Fri Feb 04, 2005 9:29 pm

Do you guys really think there'shelp out there for you??? There's probably houses built where a lot of the wetlands once were... :thumbsup:

Been there, seen that. Good luck, you'll need it!!! :mrgreen:
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