The murky waters of public, private drainage
When Whitley County, specifically Columbia City, was doused in a torrential downpour June 11, Columbia Shores resident Carl Trent, like many, found his house surrounded, and to some extent filled, with water.
“It was like somebody opened the flood gates,” he said of what occurred when he opened his garage door that morning.
Just how much rain fell in the 30 minutes to an hour vary, but most hover around four to five-inch mark.
According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, 3.98 inches of rain in an hour for Columbia City qualifies as a 1,000-year rain.
“The level of flooding was unprecedented … there’s no utility that designs to that level,” said Jeff Walker, outside operations manager for Columbia City.
Trent understands, but wanted to know if trees in the city’s swale behind his house, or a private drain tile clogged with tree roots could have been partially to blame.
An examination of the privately-installed drain tile found no obstructions — the water was just too much for any system to handle.
“Unfortunately … I don’t know if there is a solution to resolve this, other than rebuilding infrastructure across the entire city to handle a 1,000-year rain,” said Walt Crowder, board of works member and city council president.
Such questions of when is drainage a government problem and when it’s a private problem are nothing new to the city or county, although “each situation is unique,” said Brandon Forrester, engineer and surveyor for Whitley County.
He said the county has removed trees planted intentionally or unintentionally above county drain tiles.
Columbia City’s ability to remove obstructions is not as clear, according to Walker and the Columbia City Board of Works.
Eventually, tree roots will seek drain tiles and often clog them, but when it comes to an enormous amount of rain, there’s not much which can be done.
As for surface water though, the issue gets into a large “gray area,” which involves state statutes and other legal criteria, according to Forrester.
One code says it’s illegal to block a private or mutually agreed upon drain, and a surface drainage route doesn’t just apply to swales. It can be any area where surface water travels on the way to a ditch, stream, lake or other outlet.
Landowners affected by alterations to drainage can file petitions with the county’s drainage board for removal of the objects that caused the problem.
“It gives them a different out, rather than going to court,” Forrester said.
The process isn’t cut-and-dry though, and involves a hearing and a $250 filing fee, so Forrester suggests the property owners try to come to a solution on their own, which often occurs.
The county is not responsible for solving problems related to private drains.
Another twist to the county’s legal drains is that although everyone pays a drainage tax, each drain has its own fund, compared to a general storm water fee paid by a city or town resident which is applied to the whole system.