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Thinking about the Des Moines Water Works Lawsuit and the History of Drainage

In March 2015, Des Moines Water Works (DMWW) filed a lawsuit against three Iowa drainage districts because of nitrate problems in Des Moines drinking water supplies. It alleges the nitrates have leached out of farm fields, through drainage district tiles, and ended up in the city’s drinking water supply. In July, the water utility reported that it spent more than $1.5 million since December 2014 to remove nitrates from the drinking water it supplies to 500,000 customers.

This lawsuit presents yet another in the line of obvious conflicts between the myriad challenges facing a continually expanding urban and suburban population and the modern agricultural system that feeds it. It also touches on a rather peculiar historical nerve regarding the drainage system vital to the fertile fields and food-growing productivity of the Midwest. The history behind farmland drainage in the Midwest may offer a perspective on this issue and this article focuses on that history for central Illinois.

Today’s fecund corn and soybean farms in central Illinois are yesterday’s disease-ridden malarial swamps, sitting on a network of man-made drainage tiles, ditches and streams. The region, known as the Grand Prairie, was the last part of Illinois to be settled. Research indicates that many of the first settlers came from the wooded regions of Eastern United States, and to them the vast grass and swamplands of the Grand Prairie were foreboding. Many reportedly considered the area dangerous and hazardous to one’s health – a fear based in reality given that malaria was the biggest cause of death in Illinois until the 1850s. (Urban at 653).

Those few early settlers were largely isolated from the transportation systems of the time, stuck in an area known for its “sticky ‘black gumbo’ that horses would sink in up to their bellies.” (Urban at 652). The region also provided early settlers little-to-no shelter from the extremes of Midwestern weather and probably why most of them are described as if they practically clung to the small groves of trees like they were islands in a sea of grass and swamp.

The Illinois Central Railroad and Federal legislation changed things, however, and greatly altered the Grand Prairie. Railroad construction began in the 1850s and the Illinois Central also went to work trying to reverse the negative perception of the region. It sold land along its route to farmers for reasonable prices and with favorable financing, as well as pushing advertisers to promote the lands. It even gave away cash prizes for designing ditching equipment that would work on the swamps and tall grasses.

Cheap land and access to transportation routes were an important draw, but it took Congressional action to really drive settlement. Members from the Mississippi Valley region pushed for 20 years to get legislation that would transfer these swamp and grass lands to settlers who would improve them under the cause of reclamation. Congress passed the Swamp Land Acts in 1850, donating lands to the states for the purpose of converting them to productive farm lands and to improve sanitation and health in these regions. Advocates “increasingly viewed improvements in drainage as a moral imperative and the best means to realize productive potential of the soil and eliminate the source of diseases such as malaria.” (Urban, at 661).

The State of Illinois followed Congress’ lead in 1852 when it turned over land deeded under the Federal Acts to counties so that the lands could be drained and made productive. Draining lands, however, was expensive and difficult for landowners, although being not particularly effective because drainage initially consisted of simple excavations by hand. Subsurface drainage tiles made of clay came to central Illinois by 1858, but were expensive. Local manufacturing sprung up to lower the price and tiling was assisted by mechanical innovations such as ditching machines pulled by horses. By 1870, clay tiles were the preferred method of drainage and their installation peaked between 1880 and 1890. (Urban at 661).

States enacted laws in the 1870’s that allowed farmers and landowners to organize and create drainage districts. The cost of drainage was high and the capital required for effective drainage across the local landscape was large; drainage districts helped finance drainage projects and prevent free riders. They spread the cost of digging ditches, expanded outlets for the drained water, and created a network rather than haphazard drainage by individual landowners.

In Illinois, the Levee Act and the Farm Drainage Act both passed in 1870, provided for the legal organization of drainage districts with powers to assess landowners in the district whose lands would benefit from drainage. (Uchtmann & Gehris). Drainage districts were created as public corporations that have specific governmental functions, such as levying assessments and using eminent domain. With those powers, they can force uncooperative landowners into the district, which includes paying the assessment and submitting to eminent domain for drainage needs, such as running tile across their land. Landowners can be forced in only if it can be shown that their lands will benefit from drainage.

Backing from Federal and State laws combined with the demand for fertile farmland drove technological improvements in drainage practices and equipment. The results were pronounced. Between 1870 and 1967, 124 million acres of land in the continental United States were drained for agriculture. Of that, 77.5 million acres were drained after the Federal legislation went into effect. Roughly 99 million acres are under a drainage district with nearly 60 percent of it organized before 1920. Wetland acreage fell by more than 95 percent in the Corn Belt after the Swamp Land Acts, decreasing from an estimated 28 million acres in 1850 to 1.3 million acres by 1930. (McCorvie & Lant at 25-28, and 30).

Adding to this history, USDA was still helping farmers to cover the costs of wetland subsurface drainage up to 1956, while continuing technical assistance for wetland drainage through 1972 and financial incentives through 1977. Much of the drainage work had long been completed when science was able to document the values provided by wetlands in the 1970s, pushing through policy changes at the Federal level. It took even longer before science was able to recognize the “hydrological benefits in filtering and processing pollutants and storing flood waters.” (McCorvie & Lant, at 22-23).

DMWW has initiated a novel lawsuit and, although it is currently limited to three counties in Northwestern Iowa, it has the potential to reverberate across the Corn Belt. The State of Illinois, with an estimated 22 million acres of corn and soybean production – nearly 10 million of it drained by subsurface tiles – watches closely the developments to its west. The State is also moving forward with a strategy to reduce nutrient loss from farm fields. The sheer scope of this issue is difficult to grasp with a long history underlying the transformation of malarial swamps into some of the world’s most productive farmland.


Mary R. McCorvie and Christopher L. Lant, “Drainage District Formation and the Loss of Midwestern Wetlands, 1850-1930,” Agricultural History, 67:4 (1993), pp. 13-39.

D.L. Uchtmann and Bernard Gehris, “Illinois Drainage Law,” College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Cooperative Extension Service, Circular 1355 (1997), available at:

Michael A. Urban, “An uninhabited waste: transforming the Grand Prairie in nineteenth century, Illinois, USA,” Journal of Historical Geography 31 (2005), pp. 647-665.




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