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History of Drainage in Indiana

The “Land Ordinance of 1785”, as adopted by the Continental Congress, signaled the commencement of the Rectangular Public Land Survey System, which the Boone County Surveyor’s Office continues to maintain.  The first rectangular survey in the state of Indiana was performed by Israel Ludlow in 1797.  In 1819, John McDonald divided what was to become Boone County into the individual townships & ranges that are in use today.  The contracted Federal Government Surveyors followed right behind, surveying the townships and ranges into 36 each square mile sections, setting a “wood post” every half mile.  Boone County was granted organization by the Indiana General Assembly in 1823, with R.L. Hannaman being appointed as County Surveyor in 1828.  There have been 29 different individuals serving as County Surveyor since that time.  Ken Hedge is the present Boone County Surveyor, administering an office of personnel offering the citizens of Boone County a cumulative total of 144 years of experience.

One of the chief obstacles to agricultural expansion in the early days of the state was the presence of large areas of marshy ground, swamps and bogs several feet deep.  These marshy areas not only hindered farming but also created health problems such as various fevers.  Proper drainage was needed to provide better farms and health.

The first mention of drainage in Indiana statute is an Act in 1816 providing for the Highway Supervisor appointed by the county Commissioners to drain roads.  This act allowed them to enter upon lands of others, if necessary, to open ditches. Also provided was a $5.00 fine for filling these ditches.

An Act in 1832 provided for draining swamps, ponds, marshes and other low lands within Tippecanoe, Montgomery, Clinton, and Warren Counties.  This construction and repair of drains was done through the Justice of the Peace.  The Act also provided for a fine for obstructing drains.

In 1848, the General Assembly sent a resolution to Congress calling for wetlands in Jay and Adams Counties to be sold at a reduced price on condition that owners would drain the land.  The resolution also called for forfeiture of the land if not drained by the purchaser within a reasonable period of time.  Congress responded in 1850 with an Act doing just that for all states.  In 1851, Indiana required County Surveyors to locate and designate swamplands.  The act set up the procedures required by the Federal Act of 1850.

In 1852, an Act was passed regarding the construction of the levees and drains by five (5) or more landowners forming an Association.  These Associations acted much like a Corporation.

An 1861 act provided that landowners had the right to enter upon the land of others in order to deepen or maintain any natural channel, required to drain their land.  The great-grandfather of our current Drainage Law is an Act of 1863, which provided that land owners may petition the Board of Commissioners for drainage.  The Act also provided that the cost was to be borne by landowners within the drainage shed and those assessments created a lien on the property.  In 1867, a penalty of $1.00 per day was added for any obstruction to these drains.

In Indiana, between 1860 and 1890, new acres were constantly being put to the plow as forests were cleared and swamps were drained.  The acreage of tillable land in the State almost doubled in the two decades after the Civil War.  Towns and cities also sprang up or increased in size, thanks, in part, to the Drainage Laws and the infrastructure they helped provide.

In the mid-1800s, the citizens of Boone County fully appreciated the benefits to be derived from a thorough system of drainage.  When the swamps and bogs of the county were thoroughly drained, there were no lands in the state that excel them in productiveness.  The number of rods of drain tile in operation in the county in 1882 was 293,484 (920.62 miles); in 1883, 397,862 (1,248 miles); and in 1884, 519,151 (1,628.5 miles).  Additionally, in 1884 there were 4,160 rods (13 miles) of surface ditches dug.

Many drainage provisions were passed between 1863 and 1965 when a major overhaul of the Drainage Laws was made.  The Indiana Drainage Code compiled 40 separate Acts (passed between 1803 and 1964) into one code.  The Drainage Code was recodified in 1981 with relatively minor changes and since then has had minor revisions.

Indiana Drainage Code creates a Drainage Board in each County of either the County Commissioners or a Citizen Board with one Commissioner as a member.  The County Surveyor serves on the Board as an Ex-Officio Member.  This is a non-voting position in which he or she acts as the Board’s technical advisor.  The Code creates Regulated Drains (also known as legal drains in the original 1965 code or has also been called county drains through the years).  A Regulated Drain is a drain that was established through either the Circuit Court or Commissioners Court of the County prior to January 1st, 1966 or by the Drainage Board since that time.

A regulated Drain can be either an open ditch or a tile drain or a combination of both.  The Code gives the board the ability to create new drains when petitioned by 10% of the landowners in the drainage shed by acreage, owners of 25% of the assessed valuation within the drainage shed or by the County Commissioners or the City or Town Council for road and street drainage or a School Board to drain school property.  The Board can construct, maintain, reconstruct, or vacate a regulated drain.  The Board maintains a drain by putting the drain back to its original specifications by dredging, repairing tile, clearing, removing obstructions, or other work necessary to keep the drain in proper working order.

The Board must have hearings for the construction, maintenance, reconstruction, and vacation.  Notice is sent to each property owner by 1st class mail.  Land owners within the drainage shed has the opportunity to object to the proposed project.  The Board has the discretionary authority to approve, modify or dismiss the project based on the objections.  Landowners have the right of judicial review of the Board’s decision.

The Code also provides for a 75-foot drainage easement, and requires Board approval of crossing on the drain and approval of outlets into the drain. The Code also gives the Board the right to remove obstructions within the drain.

When the central Indiana area was first settled, much of it was marsh or wetlands.  In order to drain this ground or lower the water table enough to make it habitable or tillable, drain tiles were buried in the ground to carry the excess water away.  Throughout Indiana, there are thousands of miles of drainage tiles; some of these tiles were established by County Courts, County Commissioners, or by the County Drainage Board, and then maintained by the County Surveyor’s office.  These are known as County Regulated Drains.  The remainder of the drain tiles, and the vast majority of all drains in the area are private drainage.  These private drain tiles were installed by the landowners on their land or in conjunction with their neighbors to remove excess water from the soil.  These drain tiles are not designed to be storm drains to carry surface water, but only to lower the water table in an effort to make the ground suitable for farming.  The only way to find if a tile is a private drain tile or a County Regulated Drain is to contact the County Surveyor’s office or Drainage Board.  The size of a tile does not determine if it is a County Regulated Drain.  Private tiles as large as 24″ in diameter have been found to exist in this area.

As urban growth expands into areas that have been farmland in the past, private drains are often encountered.  No records were kept by the landowners as to where these drain tiles were located on a piece of property, and land is often purchased without knowledge of existing tiles.  If a drain tile that is encountered is not dealt with properly, serious water and drainage problems can arise for the landowner and the upstream landowners along the path of the tile.

Private drains are not the responsibility of the County Surveyor’s office.  However, advice and solutions to private drainage problems may be offered as well as help with determining other affected properties and their landowners.

The Boone County Surveyor’s office may also be of assistance in petitioning of the County Drainage Board for removal of obstructions in private drains.  The 1996 Indiana State Legislature provided some relief for property owners that are adversely affected due to downstream blockage(s) in a private drain or unregulated natural surface watercourse.  This legislation is Indiana Code 36-9-27.4, effective on July 1, 1996.

Included in Indiana Code 36-9-27.4 is a process in which a landowner may petition the drainage board of the county in which an obstruction allegedly exists, to remove, or authorize, or order, the removal of the obstruction. The Boone County Surveyor’s office and the Boone County Drainage Board have a Private Drain Petition form available to assist Boone County residents who wish to resolve private drainage issues through the Boone County Drainage Board.


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Carol Cunningham



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