Image above: A particularly rough patch of Brown County 5 east of Frederick was patched with gravel last year and is starting to heave again.
By Heidi Marttila-Losure, Dakotafire Media
Reporting by Garrick Moritz, Faulk County Record, and Doug Card, Britton Journal
Spring driving in rural areas of the Dakotafire region has become more of an adventure in recent years that most drivers would probably like it to be.
First they have to plot their course based on which roads are open. Then they have to watch for rough patches all along the way, slowing down or veering to keep from hitting them too hard.
And if they end up hitting a rough spot anyway, the phones start ringing in area car repair shops.
“[Spring] is definitely our busy time,” said Lynn Arment, owner of Ken’s Alignment Center in Aberdeen. “It’s probably more so this year.”
Roads are rough this spring despite a mild winter that has helped both counties and townships as they try to work on area roads. The Brown County Transportation Department, for example, has done more gravel work this winter than they had been able to do in the past three years combined, according to an Aberdeen American News story. Faulk County Deputy Auditor Kathy Lowe said that many area townships saved money on snow removal, which means more money is available for road repair. Faye Hoines, clerk for South Detroit Township just north of Claremont in Brown County, said that the township had saved $3,000 to $4,000 in snow removal costs this winter. (Since many farmers have done their own snow removal in recent years, they had some additional savings that didn’t affect township budgets.)
But those are small positives compared with the huge negatives these local governments are dealing with. A trio of nearly intractable factors—super-wet conditions, higher costs for materials and heavier equipment using area roads—is creating a dire picture overall for road conditions throughout the Dakotafire region. And though there are some ways of addressing these problems, they are likely even more unpopular than a forced visit to the car repair shop.
Factor 1: Lots of water
The conversation was the same in coffee klatches all over the Dakotafire region last spring: No one could remember ever seeing water that high before.
Roads washed out. Low spots in fields became lakes. Some farms became islands, and in at least one case a farm was abandoned to the water. One of the only things to benefit from the situation was the duck population, which boomed as waterfowl swam on land that had been cropped or grazed two years before.
All of the counties in the Dakotafire region except McPherson were declared flood-related disaster areas in spring 2011. In some places, such as around the town of Claremont, waters converged into a massive lake. For the most part, however, the problem was lots of little floods instead of one grand flooded area. In just the western half of Savo Township in northern Brown County, for example—a three-mile by six-mile area—roads were under water in 37 places.
Where did all this water come from? Water levels had already been high in 2010, and the excessively snowy winter of 2010-11 added to the problem: The National Weather Service reported that Aberdeen received 79.3 inches of snow, more than double the average.
But more water from the sky was not the only reason. The yearly precipitation was high, but not significantly higher than it had been in previous wet cycles (in the 1940s, for example), according to data from the National Climatic Data Center.
One less obvious factor in the region’s super-wet conditions is changing farming practices, which have affected how much water is used where it falls, and therefore how much pools elsewhere. Farmers are growing less wheat and other small grains, which use a lot of water in the spring, and more soybeans, which use relatively little water, and most of that at other times of year, according to Natural Resources Conservation Service data. Grasslands are especially good at holding and utilizing water, but as crop prices have risen, many acres of pasture have been converted to cropland. These all add up to more water running off of the land.
The nationwide trend toward a corn-soybean rotation is not likely to change this year. The NRCS is joining with the South Dakota Game Fish, and Parks Department to increase payments for putting land into the Conservation Reserve Program, but with corn prices above $6 a bushel and soybean prices predicted to top $14 a bushel, it’s going to be a hard sell. And for the most part, water usage doesn’t even come into the decision-making process.
Factor 2: A little more money, but a lot higher costs
The prices for the materials needed for repairing roads have gone up dramatically in recent years.
Counties have been hit hard as oil prices rise, since much of the material they need is tied to the price of oil. The cost of road oil MC-3000, which is needed in chip sealing roads, went up 25 percent a gallon, according to Jan Weismantel, Brown County Highway Superintendent.
Townships have also suffered: Gravel prices have also gone up every year. Savo Township will pay $10.90 a yard this year, compared to $10.35 last year and $9.75 in 2010, according to Calvin Raisanen, Savo Township treasurer. This increase is also in part due to the rise in fuel prices.
And the higher the cost of materials, the less counties and governments can accomplish with their regular budgets.
South Dakota’s state legislature passed an increase in license fees in 2011, and local governments will start receiving that money this year. Weismantel said that will give the Brown County Transportation Department $800,000 more this year, giving a good boost to the chip-seal budget for fixing asphalt roads.
But it’s a far cry from the amount Weismantel says she needs to do what the department is supposed to be doing.
The asphalt roads in the county are supposed to be repaired with either chip-sealing or paving every 10 years, but there’s not near enough money to do that. “What we have is a 40-year rotation, instead of a 10-year rotation,” she said.
To achieve the recommended maintenance schedule, Weismantel says she’d need a minimum of a $30 million budget. What she has is a budget of $7.8 million. “We’re five times behind,” she said. “Something has got to give somewhere.”
Many townships have already passed opt-outs from state property tax limits to get additional funding— nine of the 17 townships in Faulk County have opted out, for example. But many of the townships that have opted out are still short of money.
Most townships received funding from FEMA after disaster declarations in 2010 and 2011, which has helped significantly.
“FEMA has done Brown County a world of good,” says Scott Meints, emergency management coordinator for the county, who handles the gathering of information from the townships when applying for disaster aid. “Without FEMA … you’d probably have to close Brown County, because there’s no money. But has it been all our answers? Absolutely not.”
It sounds like a pretty good deal: Once an application is accepted, FEMA pays 75 percent of the cost, and the state adds another 10 percent, so the township only has to pay 15 percent of the cost for repairs.
In reality, FEMA money typically falls far short of what’s needed to bring Dakota roads back to a functional level.
“FEMA will only put a road back to its before-disaster condition,” Meints said. “You can argue the point that the roadbed wasn’t saturated (before the disaster) … but it’s an argument we don’t win. If two inches of gravel washed off, that’s all you’re getting.”
South Detroit Township passed an opt-out of $15,000 for five years, and Hoines said they are hopeful that with the opt-out and their FEMA funding they’ll have enough.
“FEMA helped with 85 percent of funding on 22 projects, but that’s still not enough for all the problems that we have,” said Hoines. “If the weather cooperates, we’re hoping that with the opt-out and the FEMA money that we will be able to fix all of the 22 projects in the next year and that we may only have to use the maximum $15,000 opt-out for a year and then reduce that amount. But that’s a big ‘if.’”
FEMA also seems to be set up to deal with disasters of shorter duration—a hurricane that strikes and leaves, or a flood from a river that rises and then after a few days or weeks recedes. Its definition of a flood is “a general and temporary condition of partial or complete inundation of two or more acres of normally dry land area … from overflow of inland or tidal waters, from unusual and rapid accumulation or runoff of surface waters from any source, or from mudflow.”
Here in the Prairie Pothole region, that “temporary” condition has lasted several years—or even, near Claremont, almost two decades.
“It began with the big rains in the summer of 1993, and ever since then it’s been snowballing,” Hoines said. “We keep getting more rain and snow, and it’s just been a continuation.”
FEMA funds come with a deadline, and some townships may have to apply for extensions from FEMA as they wait for the water to go down so they can fix some places still under water.
Moreover, the standing water has caused problems even in the places where repairs have already been made. Some places that were fixed last year are sinking again this year—and this year there is no disaster declaration, Meints said. This year, townships are on their own.
County governments are essentially on their own as well, but for a different reason: Most county roads are part of the federal-aid highway program, which means they are eligible for federal assistance in emergencies, but they have to front the money for repairs and then wait for the federal government to reimburse them. Weismantel said the Brown County transportation budget is so tight there is no way they could come up with the initial funding, so they are unable to take advantage of the program.
Factor 3: Heavy traffic
Part of the overall problem, Weismantel explained, is that area roads were not built to take current traffic.
Eighty percent of county roads are what is called base and blotter—they were gravel roads, and at a point when oil was cheap, they were paved over, Weismantel said. But that road structure just doesn’t hold up to today’s loads.
Tractors are bigger, and grain is hauled in semis, not farm trucks. All of this extra weight makes a big difference in road durability.
“It takes 9,000 cars to equal the damage that one truck does,” Weismantel explained.
She doesn’t fault the farmers for running the heavier equipment—she follows that logic herself as she makes decisions for the highway department. She runs trains, or a semi with a trailer, whenever possible, moving as much material at one time as she can, to save on diesel costs.
“Everything is dollar-driven,” she said.
If the heavier equipment is causing much of the damage, is there a way to get the users of that equipment to pay more of the costs of repairs?
Some people have brought up a way to do that, Weismantel said: Make the wheel tax more equitable. Right now, everyone pays a tax per wheel in Brown County (and in many other counties in South Dakota), but they are only charged on a maximum of four wheels per vehicle. That means that Granny driving her sedan down the road is paying the same as the semi hauling grain, even though the truck is doing 9,000 times the damage as Granny’s car.
Weismantel said there are many people who would oppose an increase in the wheel tax, and she’s not heard it seriously discussed by lawmakers.
Another option is putting some paved roads back to gravel, especially considering the population of rural areas is dwindling. The rural residents who are left, however, are not pleased that they would have to go farther to reach a paved road.
All of this means that even though the high water is receding, don’t expect better road conditions unless more money enters the picture from somewhere.
“Hopefully (townships) will be able to go back to square one” this year, Weismantel said. In many cases, townships were only able to deal with emergencies last year, so this year they might be able to get back to doing some maintenance. “But hopefully people will realize that with all the damage that was done, it’s not a one-year fix. It’s probably a 10-year fix.”
And eventually, some chain of events is likely to force a difficult decision, Weismantel said: “All we are doing now is putting a Band-Aid on top of a Band-Aid on top of a Band-Aid.”
Heidi Marttila-Losure is editor of Dakotafire Media. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.