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Effects of a Legal Drain Clean-Out on Wetlands and
Waterbirds: A Recent Case History

Study Areas and Background


BBM and Kraft Slough (about 8 km southwest of Big Slough) are located in western Sargent County, North Dakota (Figure 1) in the lakebed of former Glacial Lake Dakota (Bluemle 1979). The origin of these wetlands probably dates back to when the glacial lake receded about 10,000 years ago. Little is known about the early history of these wetlands with the exception of Big Slough, which ornithologist Thomas S. Roberts visited on 19 June 1883 and characterized in his journal as "fairly swarming with bird life" (Krosch 1987). He identified mallard (Anas platyrhynchos Linnaeus), northern pintail (Anas acuta Linnaeus), redheads (Aythya americana Eyton), teals, coots (Fulica americana Gmelin), grebes, marsh wrens, yellow-headed blackbirds (Xanthocephalus xanthocephalus Linnaeus), and red-winged blackbirds (Agelaius phoeniceus Linnaeus) as being most abundant, with many other species being less common.

Figure 1.   Map of western Sargent County, North Dakota showing location of Bruns, Big, Meszaros, and Kraft Sloughs, Crete-Cogswell Drain No. 11, and the upper Wild Rice River. Numbers inside circles identify North Dakota State Highways 1, 11, and 13.

Drain No. 11 was dug during 1917-23 by a contractor hired by local landowners to drain the waters of BBM into the Wild Rice River (USA v. SCWRD et al., Civil No. A3-88-175). To fund construction, a mill levy was passed to raise property taxes on lands that were expected to benefit from the project. The historical record is unclear as to whether the project initially succeeded in draining the surface waters from BBM. However, County records of payment for work done on Drain No. 11 and other sources of information indicate that the drain above Meszaros Slough was not maintained between construction and 1984 (D. M. Frick, pers. comm.). Without repairs, walls of the drain gradually slumped, and the accumulation of wind and waterborne silt and other matter formed major blockages in the drain. By the 1950s, the drain had become filled with soil to a depth of over a meter in many areas, restricting water flow from Bruns and Big Sloughs to periods of high water levels.

BBMK were classified as lakes by the National Wetland Inventory based on aerial photography taken in May 1979 (after Cowardin et al. 1979) and encompassed about 333, 630, 467, and 340 ha, respectively. The criterion that established each as a lake was the presence of >8 ha of permanently-flooded area lacking persistent emergents (Cowardin et al. 1979). Permanently-flooded areas were vegetated principally by submersed beds of sago pondweed (Potamogeton pectinatus Linnaeus). Semipermanently-flooded zones in BBMK were vegetated primarily by cattail (Typha spp). Whitetop (Scolochloa festucacea Willd) was the dominant plant of seasonally-flooded areas.

Agricultural use of BBMK before 1984 was limited to grazing and haying of privately owned, temporarily and seasonally flooded areas (U.S. Department of Agriculture 1964). The sernipermanently flooded and permanently flooded areas of BBMK were largely undisturbed because of standing water throughout the year (U.S. Department of Agriculture 1964). A thorough review of the agricultural history and records of the BBM area by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers revealed no evidence that BBM had been cultivated and planted to crops prior to the drain clean-out (M. W. Keller, pers. comm.).

Efforts by some local landowners to gain assistance from the Federal Government to reconstruct Drain No. 11 began in the 1950s and continued through the 1970s. These requests were rejected, however, because of concerns that drain improvements and associated irrigation development would adversely affect water quality downstream, particularly in Canada (Anonymous 1984). In the early 1980s, supporters of the drain clean-out turned to local landowners who might benefit financially from the project. In 1982, a majority of landowners in a 48,583-ha special tax assessment area surrounding and including BBM voted to increase their property taxes to pay for the clean-out of Drain No. 11. The Sargent County Water Resource District (SCWRD), the local government entity charged with water management, became the sponsor of the project. Work on cleaning out Drain No. 11 began in 1984 and was completed in 1986. The clean-out occurred from where State Highway 13 crosses the center of Bruns Slough to the point of discharge into the Wild Rice River a few kilometers southeast of Meszaros Slough (Figure 1).


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