Court Concludes Drainage Tiles Are Not Culverts

February 6, 2013 | Erika Eckley

In a recent Iowa Supreme Court case, the court was tasked with determining whether a drainage tile buried 6.62 feet below the surface and running underneath a railroad track is a “culvert” under Iowa’s Levee and Drainage Districts and Improvements statute such that a railroad has the responsibility to repair.

The issue started when Union Pacific Railroad noticed a void under its tracks. It filled the spot with rock in compliance with federal safety regulations. The void, however, was actually caused by a damaged drain tile that had been installed in 1914 that the railroad did not know about.  The rock caused the tile to become plugged, thereby causing flooding on farmland west of the roadbed. In addition to the tile, there was a culvert carrying surface water from one side of the road bed to the other.

The drainage district sent written notice to the railroad in accordance with Iowa law informing the railroad of its responsibility to rebuild and reconstruct the damaged tile. After notice was sent, however, the drainage district decided that the tile line had insufficient capacity. The district decided to replace the tile with a twenty-one inch inside-diameter carrier pipe enclosed within a twenty-eight inch steel carrier pipe. The railroad did not object to the replacement, but denied it was required to pay for it and refused to pay the district after the repair was made. The issue went to court and the trial court ruled that the railroad had to pay for the costs of construction, permitting, surveying, administration of the project, and had to pay attorney fees. The court also awarded damages to the farmer whose crops were flooded based on the railroad’s negligence in plugging the drain while trying to repair the roadbed.

Iowa Code § 468.109 requires that railroads receive notice when a necessary improvement to a drainage district crosses a right-of-way. After receiving notice, the railroad is required to construct the improvement according to the plans and specifications provided and to build or repair any necessary culvert or bridge where any ditch or drain crosses the right-of-way.  A railroad is also required to pay for the repair of a culvert or bridge if it is located at a natural waterway or at a place the railroad chooses.  A railroad, however, is not required to pay for other improvements ordered by the drainage district.

The issue for the court in this case was whether the damaged drainage tile was a “culvert” within the meaning of Iowa’s drainage statute.  If the tile was a culvert, then the railroad was responsible for the cost of the improvement. If the drainage tile was not a culvert, then the railroad was not responsible.

The term “culvert” was not defined in the statute, so the court looked to the intent of the legislature in passing the law and at the ordinary usage of the term. Upon review, the court concluded that the legislature intended that railroads bear the costs of ensuring the natural flow of water would continue as if no railroad existed. The court also concluded that the legislature did not intend that the railroad should be held financially responsible for artificial underground improvements to drainage that would occur regardless of whether the railroad was present.

Additionally, the court held that the common usage of the term culvert indicates that culverts are a very specific type of drain and in technical parlance they are specific drains in which each end opens to the air. Also important to the court was the fact that the statute uses both terms “drain” and “culvert.” The usage of the two terms in separate places indicated to the court that the legislature did not intend to require the railroad to pay for the cost of repair of all drains. The specific statutory section requiring payment from the railroad was meant to apply only to culverts and bridges as specifically stated. The court concluded that if the legislature had intended the railroad to pay for improvements to all drains, then the statute would have specified payment drains rather than culverts. Therefore, because the drainage tile was not a culvert under the statute, the railroad was not statutorily obligated to pay for the repairs to the drainage tile or other related damages. The damage awards were reversed and the case remanded for dismissal. Hardin County Drainage Dist. 55 v. Union Pacific Railroad Co., No. 11-1637, 2013 Iowa Sup. LEXIS 10 (Iowa Sup. Ct. Feb. 1, 2013).