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Balance of Power: County Drainage Board Can Veto State Highway Plan

Great civics class topic... and implications for Keystone XL?

Flooding on Highway 81 north of Madison has brought up an interesting question of the local&ndashstate balance of power.

As you'll know if you've tried to get from Watertown to Madison, Highway 81 between Madison and Arlington is under water. It's not much water; the state is still letting trucks through and detouring overwidth vehicles from I-29 to this stretch of Highway 81 (seriously? you can't just take old 77 from Colman to Brookings?). But you can't see the road, and I thought the standard advice was that you never, never drive through water, since you can't see if the road has caved in under the water. (Hmm... all those detoured trucks can't be helping the waterlogged roadbed's integrity.)

The South Dakota Department of Transportation's preferred solution is to lower the Twin Lakes that are currently merging over Highway 81. DOT engineer Craig Smith discussed that and other options with the Brookings County Commission last week. Concerned that moving water out of the Twin Lakes area means more flooding for folks downstream in Sinai and beyond, the commissioners took great pains to establish whether they can use their drainage board powers to say yea or nay to such a plan:

The DOT has three options, Smith said. If the preferable option of drawing Twin Lakes down is denied by Brookings County, the DOT could either close the road to all traffic once winter conditions make the road impassable, or raise the road at a cost of as much as $5 million.

"So we don't have a lot of good options, but we do know we need to do something with the road; so we're going to be pursuing that within the next month," he said. Commissioner Deanna Santema asked if the county would have the final say.

"In your opinion then, and this is just your opinion, if you want to answer it. Can the Brookings County actually deny it, and if we say no, that's the end of it?"

Smith said that was his understanding.

"We would certainly, I guess, have to follow up with our staff in Pierre in the legal office; but it's my understanding, yeah, you guys have that power to deny it, and then we would have to look at our other options" [Ryan Woodard, "DOT Hires Banner for 81 Study," Brookings Register, 2011.07.04].

Highway 81 thus offers a remarkable civics class example of how a county commission can apparently block a state government decision, even when that blockage may force state taxpayers to pay more money for a solution.

It also gets my mind working on a way that opponents could stop the Keystone XL pipeline. TransCanada has obtained eminent domain authority by demonstrating that its tar sands pipeline is a "common carrier," rather like Highway 81. But if a county commission can use its drainage authority to block an operation to improve such a highway, then surely there must be some permit that Harding, Haakon, or Tripp County could deny to monkey-wrench the whole project. West River neighbors, if you commission is having an election, think about that!

p.s.: Hey, instead of flooding Sinai or re-engineering the road, how about contracting a private ferry operator?


  1. shane gerlach 2011.07.06

    Old 77 would be horrible with overwide vehicles on it Cory. Oncoming traffic would have to pull into ditch (there is little to no shoulder for most of old 77 and much is lined with sloughs.) so semi could get by. If the State didn't take 3 years to do a 30 mile stretch of road the traffic could have been re-routed East on Hwy 34 to Hwy 13 (Elkton road) to Brookings via Hwy 14.

  2. caheidelberger Post author | 2011.07.06

    Indeed, the route to 13 would have been much better. But would those risks be more tolerable than sending trucks all the way out to 81, wearing out a weakened road faster, and possibly diving into the drink?

  3. caheidelberger Post author | 2011.07.06

    Larry, I'd rather see verticle pipelines bringing us nearly boundless and clean heat than these horizontal pipelines pumping an all too finite and dirty resource.

    By the way, I hear that Brookings County put in four new culverts to lower Lake Sinai last month. That new drainage should make some room for the Twin Lakes to drain... but it has also flooded some farm land and the Volga golf course. No matter what, someone's going to get wet!

  4. Kelly Fuller 2011.07.06

    Cory, three words - route siting authority. Of course, deciding which neighbors get stuck with it would not be a fun job for any county commission.

  5. Charlie Johnson 2011.07.07

    Why not water from Twin lakes to Madison rather than Lewis and Clark?

  6. caheidelberger Post author | 2011.07.07

    Kelly, I'd at least be happy to see that decision being made by local elected officials rather than hidden employees of a froeign corporation.

    Charlie, that's an excellent idea! And we could run that water in a nice pipeline straight down the Highway 81 right-of-way!

  7. Eve Fisher 2011.07.07

    How about facing the fact that these "lakes" aren't going to go down soon, and building a bridge?

  8. caheidelberger Post author | 2011.07.07

    A bridge! Heck yeah! That would be an attractive landmark—tourism potential?

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