Drainage District Need Not Pay for Sink-Hole Repair Costs

November 28, 2010 | Erin Herbold

In the early 1900’s, the Iowa Legislature created a system of drainage districts to facilitate construction and repair of drainage tile, levies, waterways and terraces in certain parts of the state. Normally, the county board of supervisors acts as the drainage district board in the event of disputes or drainage issues. In this case, workers for a rail line discovered a sink hole under the railroad tracks in a drainage district. The sink hole was the result of old clay drainage tiles collapsing and sucking the soil from the railroad embankment. The railroad contacted the county drainage district engineer to negotiate repair of the tiles. The drainage engineer refused to make the repairs, stating that the drainage district did not have the responsibility to maintain the railroad embankment. 

The railroad considered this an emergency situation and hired a contractor to fix the sink hole by cleaning out the collapsed tile and installing a 40-foot long steel tube (culvert) to drain the area. The total cost of the project came to nearly $18,000.  Consequently, the railroad sued to recover its costs, alleging that the delay caused by the drainage district engineer and the district’s refusal to pay caused the railroad substantial damages.  At trial, the court heard testimony from expert witnesses on both sides. The railroad’s engineer claimed that the clay tile had been installed by the drainage district after the construction of the railroad bed and that construction interfered with the structural integrity of the tracks. The general contractor testified that he considered several options for fixing the sink-hole, but deemed the culvert the best way to maintain the structural integrity of the tracks. Eventually, the drainage district’s engineer testified that when the drainage district was established in the area they opted to run a tile-line system that passed through the rail embankment rather than a culvert, because a culvert allows the movement of water from one side of an obstruction to the other side slowing down the flow and drainage of water from the area. In other words, the culvert was not installed to maintain drainage, it was installed to support the rail embankment. 

The drainage district argued that Iowa Code Ch. 468 supported its position that the railroad should pay for the costs of repair. That provision states that the cost of repairing a culvert or bridge when the improvement is located at a place of the natural waterway is the responsibility of the railroad.  But, the railroad argued that the provision only applied to the duty of railroads to pay the costs of the initial construction of culverts or bridges, but did not require the railroad to bear the costs of repairing the tile lines. The railroad cited Iowa Code §468.126 for its position that when a drainage district has been established and an improvement such as a tile line has been constructed, the cost of eventual repair of the improvement should be assessed to the district.  Conversely, the drainage district claimed that §468.126 did not pertain to the situation where tile lines cross a railroad right of way. 

The trial court agreed with the drainage district.  Because the court viewed the statute as ambiguous because “culvert” was not defined in Ch. 468, and the parties’ experts could not come to agreement on the use of culverts in moving subsurface water, the court had to look to prior case law, dictionary definitions and common usage. The court noted that “culvert” was commonly defined as “a transverse drain or waterway.”  None of the dictionary definitions limited the purpose of a culvert to conveying surface water. The railroad argued that the court should have used the Iowa Drainage Law Manual definition of “culvert” which defines a culvert as “a closed conduit or structure used to convey surface drainage through an embankment such as a roadway.” The trial court also noted that the Iowa Legislature did define a culvert in the portion of the Iowa Code governing the maintenance of secondary roads.  There, Iowa Code §309.1(3) classifies a culvert as “a bridge which provides an opening under any roadway, except that this term does not include tile crossing the road, or intakes thereto, where the tile are a part of a tile line or system designed to aid subsurface drainage.” 

The trial court took all of these definitions into consideration and determined that a culvert “is a conduit by which drainage improvements transect railroad embankments.” Even though a pipe is connected to a tile line in a field that falls within the jurisdiction of the drainage district, the court reasoned that didn’t mean that the drainage district should bear the cost of repair. 

On appeal, the Iowa Court of Appeals agreed and discussed the relevant history behind Iowa Code §§ 468.111 and 468.126. The legislative history of these drainage districts runs all the way back to the early twentieth century, and indicates that the railroad companies were obligated to build new culverts or bridges over planned drainage districts. When the railroad companies were constructing the rail lines, they knew of the proposed system of drainage districts in Iowa. They understood that they would maintain the embankments and ditches associated with the rail lines. The drafters of the drainage district laws clearly intended to make the railroad companies maintain drainage in the area. Finally, the party that benefitted from the work was clearly the railroad, not the members of the drainage district.  Chicago Central and Pacific Railroad Company v. Calhoun County Board of Supervisors, No. 0-637/10-0061, 2010 Iowa App. LEXIS 1343 (Iowa Ct. App., Nov. 10, 2010).