Drainage districts are local governmental entities organized primarily to drain lands for agricultural use. The majority of drainage districts in Wisconsin were formed in the early 1900s and established a legal mechanism for managing drains and related facilities to ensure reliable drainage. The districts are primarily governed by Drainage of Lands, Chapter 88, Wis. Stats. Drainage districts can include and benefit both agricultural and non-agricultural lands. Districts may also extend beyond municipal and county lines. Property owners who benefit from drainage districts pay assessments to cover the cost of constructing, maintaining, and repairing district drains.
The Dane County Drainage Board holds public meetings to discuss issues and make decisions involving the drainage districts, which may extend into neighboring counties. The drainage board ensures that all drainage districts under its jurisdiction comply with state standards by:
To find out which district your property is located in visit:
To find out statewide information on drainage districts visit Drainage Districts webpage from the Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection (DATCP).
Drainage Districts are primarily governed by:
Districts may also be required to satisfy other applicable provisions found in:
A drainage district acts as one system, orchestrating the drainage of land by ditches and tiles that cross individual property boundaries, often municipal boundaries and, occasionally county boundaries prevent soil flooding. Along with accepting water from farmland, the ditches take water from platted areas and in some districts municipal treatment plants. The landowners in a district whose land benefits from the drainage pay an assessment to cover the cost of maintaining and repairing the district system for the benefit of all. A local Drainage Board, typically comprised of 3 members appointed by the circuit court, inspect the ditches and holds public meetings to discuss issues and make decisions involving a district.
Drainage Districts provide for orderly drainage of farm land. Farm land often has too much water for optimal growing conditions. Consequently, the farmers rely on surface and subsurface drainage systems to remove water from the fields to increase crop yield. These systems also have non-agricultural benefits such as protecting structures built below grade (i.e., basements and septic tanks) from flooding. When landowners individually drain their fields, divert storm water, or pump out their basements, it can negatively affect the landowners downstream. The removal of surface water and groundwater is best approached in a systematic manner.
By organizing a drainage district, landowners have the advantages of:
Typically consisting of three members, a county drainage board is responsible for operating all districts in the county. However, because districts may extend across more than one county, a board’s jurisdiction may extend into another county.
The Dane County Drainage Board holds public meetings to discuss issues and make decisions involving the drainage districts. The Drainage Board ensures that all drainage districts under its jurisdiction comply with state standards. A Board may take actions that include:
Board members are appointed by the circuit court. The Board must consist of at least three members but may include up to five. Members serve staggered three year terms. The Board must include one experienced farmer familiar with drainage and one member familiar to some extent with drainage engineering.
Assessing benefits to non-agricultural lands
A drainage district was originally formed to provide an outlet (ditch or tile main) for on-farm drainage systems. Over several years, municipalities (city or village) expanded into drainage districts. Land with assessed drainage benefits was subdivided and houses or businesses built. The original drainage benefits assessed to the agricultural lands still exist. When these changes occur, drainage boards face the challenge of determining how to reassess benefits to account for land that is no longer used for agriculture.
Agricultural drainage benefits are calculated by determining the degree to which drainage will improve growing conditions in fields. The soils in fields retain moisture differently, and as a result have different drainage characteristics. Farms fields may be characterized as somewhat poorly drained, poorly drained, and very poorly drained. These drainage characterizations determine the level of on-farm drainage needed to achieve an aerated root zone for good crop growth. Simply said, the wetter the soil is, the greater the benefit drainage will provide. Naturally well-drained soils do not have a drainage benefit.
The concepts of drainage benefits do not apply to land not used for farming. The options available to a drainage board for assessing drainage benefits to non-agricultural lands are spelled out in an administrative rule (Chapter 48) from the Department of Agriculture, Trade, and Consumer Protection titled Drainage Districts.
The rule says the drainage board may reassess drainage benefits based on land use changes and the subdivision of lands (48.06). The drainage board may use land use categories which can include residential uses and commercial uses (48.08(4)).
When assessing drainage benefits to nonagricultural lands, the drainage board may consider the extent and frequency of additional discharges from the nonagricultural lands to district drains, and the drainage district’s additional cost to accommodate those additional discharges. The additional discharges may include storm water, wastewater, and runoff from impermeable surfaces (48.10). Village of Little Chute v. Outagamie County Drainage, Case No. 2010AP2159, available at https://www.wicourts.gov/ca/opinion/DisplayDocument.pdf?content=pdf&seqNo=65825 (Reasonable to assess non-ag land based on impervious surface). This process is similar to that used in a storm water management district to collect monies for the district’s operation.
A second option for assessing drainage benefits to nonagricultural lands is a flat amount per lot, per acre, or per building or residence.
The drainage board makes an assessment for cost to pay for the operation of the drainage district. The cost includes those associated with an annual inspection, creating the annual report, conducting district meetings/hearings and an annual meeting, attorney fees, maintenance and repair of district facilities, and a reserve available for maintenance and catastrophic events.
As directed by Chapter 88, Wis. Stats., Drainage of Lands, the County Treasurer’s Office collects the district assessment payments and keeps a complete and accurate accounting record for the receipts and expenditures of each district’s funds.
Although the Treasurer does not serve as a member of the Farm Drainage Board, there are responsibilities to fulfill as the treasurer of the Drainage Board. The Treasurer signs the assessment notices, which are prepared and mailed by the Drainage Board to the respective property owners. As district assessment payments are received in the Treasurer’s Office, they are recorded and credited toward the appropriate parcel and drainage district. By order of the Drainage Board, the Treasurer’s Office disburses payments for expenditures accrued by each drainage district.
Upon request by the Drainage Board, the Treasurer’s Office provides the Board with balances of each district’s funds and a record of any unpaid district assessments. By November each fall, the Drainage Board coordinates with the property lister to add any unpaid assessments with the interest onto the respective real estate property tax bills for collection in the same manner as general taxes. The Treasurer’s Office then settles with the district when taxes are paid.