Legislative fixes to Michigan’s drain code stir controversy


By Liam Jackson
Capital News Service

A proposed plan to revamp how Michigan manages water problems would give drain commissioners authority across county lines.

The change is part of a package of legislative fixes to the state drain code that would set up water management programs based around a single drainage basin instead of county lines. Right now the work of elected drain commissioners is confined by county boundaries instead of the region where floods arise.

“Drain commissioners are usually elected by county, but water, of course, flows over those boundaries,” said Megan Tinsley, the water policy director at the Michigan Environmental Council, a statewide coalition of environmental groups that supports the change. “It would be helpful to consider more of a watershed level of approach to managing water.”

Tinsley said the legislation proposes different governing boards to look at a water problem together.

“It would include drain commissioners from any affected county, so they would be working more collaboratively and talking about solutions to a problem instead of just looking at it on a county by county basis,” Tinsley said.

The switch would make it easier to administer projects that would reduce flooding of roads and homes, she said.

“What the changes the bills propose would take the pressure off drains by being able to store and manage water in different parts of the watershed.”

And it would give drain commissioners more tools for managing water, like creating wetlands to hold and control it instead of only digging ditches to drain it.

“If there is an area that is continually inundated, turning that into more of a wetland that provides water storage has the potential to provide environmental benefits,” Tinsley said.

That’s particularly valuable because so many natural wetlands have been filled in for development, she said.

And drain experts say the change would accommodate the uncertain nature of drainage problems that ignore county borders.

“When you are looking at drains, it’s not the same as flushing the toilet or turning on a water faucet,” said Stacy Hissong, the general counsel for the Michigan Association of County Drain Commissioners, which supports the changes.

“It’s something involving Mother Nature and it follows the topography and it follows rainfall. It’s not really something that you think about as a utility that you need to be responsible for paying for until you flood,” Hissong said.

“This is just another mechanism to deal with today’s flooding and drainage issues,” Hissong said. “As we evolve as a state, we need different tools to do that and it’s never, ever, a popular thing.”

The National Federation of Independent Businesses of Michigan opposes the possibility of drain commissioners having taxing authority in more than one county.

“We are just opposed to any taxing mechanism without oversight, and that’s essentially what this is,” said Amanda Fisher, the state director of that group. “I am just worried that small business owners may end up paying the price and end up paying taxes on something that isn’t even happening in their county that they are responsible for because of one of these authorities that are created.”

While supportive of the changes, Tinsley said the complex drain code has room for even more improvements.

“I think they have the capacity to make changes for the better,“ Tinsley said. “That being said, we wish the bills were more explicit in how they laid out incorporating things like water quality benefits into projects.”

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