The County Drain Commissioner Is One of our Most Important Elected Officials

Lynne Heasley

Dr. Lynne Heasley

Olga Bonfiglio
College of Arts and Sciences Staff Writer

Huh? And, btw, what is a drain commissioner?

Dr. Lynne Heasley, associate professor of history and environmental and sustainability studies, was among a panel of three who helped answer that question at the second Honors College Lyceum titled “Our Blue Marble.”

The drain commissioner (a.k.a. water resources commissioner) creates and maintains the county drains and provides storm water guidance and support to a county.

Heasley illustrated the drain commissioner’s importance with a case concerning the once-healthy trout-filled Coldwater River (a.k.a. Little Thornapple) in Barry County whose banks were cleared of trees and debris to make the river flow faster and flood less upstream. Instead, the commissioner’s decision summoned the wrath of riparian property owners and fishermen, especially when a thick layer of black and smelly sludge appeared.

“It destroyed a decade of collaborative work to protect habitat in a public-private restoration program,” said Heasley. “And yet, the drain commissioner of Barry County expanded the scope of the project without getting required permits from the state—or informing the two neighboring counties responsible for the inter-county drain.” 

Heasley said this case was reminiscent of a newspaper article about a 1970s-era drain commissioner in Shiawassee County who declared that the office is “more powerful than the governor” because it can levy taxes without approval by the county commission or the state legislature.  

The debacle of Coldwater River actually goes back to the early nineteenth century and Michigan’s complex environmental history, Heasley said. People moving Westward avoided settlement in Michigan because of its swamps and water-borne disease. Territorial and state laws allowed for swamp drainage in order to make way for agriculture. 

The Michigan Drain Code of 1956 authorizes county drain commissioners to assess the costs of drain work to landowners, which makes the office a powerful local and state position, unique in the country. The code is the primary statute that mandates the responsibilities of the county drain commissioner and provides for the creation and maintenance of county drains.

Each drain has a contributing area (similar to a watershed) called a drainage district, which is a public corporation that is legally and financially responsible for maintaining the functioning of the drain.

All costs are paid for by drain assessments, and the drain commissioner acts as a steward for each drainage district. She keeps the historical, financial, and easement records; schedules maintenance; responds to service requests; requires permits for activities affecting the drain; borrows funds to pay for costs; and assesses the costs back to the landowners, transportation authorities, and municipalities, according to their estimated benefit. Apportionments—the fixed proportion owed by an entity for any costs—are adjusted as land use changes.

Dr. Denise Keele

Dr. Denise Keele, associate professor of political science, said that the concept of federalism also helped make the drain commissioner powerful. Federalism defines the constitutional relationship between the local, state and federal government. 

“The 10th Amendment says that states have rights,” said Keele. “It assumes that local officials know more about their resources than those in higher levels of government. Consequently, the people can exercise more control over their lives by voting for their local officials.”

However, federalism and local control have led to a proliferation of elected offices, many of which voters don’t know about or understand.

“Different states assume local control in different ways based on what’s important in a particular state,” said Keele. “One of the more powerful but obscure offices in Michigan is the county drain commissioner who has the authority to tax and the responsibility to control the prevalence of water all around us.”

Michigan has 65 hydrologic unit code level 8 watersheds, thousands of drainage districts and 1,100 inter-county drains covering 6,000 square miles in 83 counties. Kalamazoo County is an intensely water-connected environment, with about 350 drainage districts, more than 360 lakes and ponds, and hundreds of miles of streams, rivers, and drains. Drain commissioners work to control flooding, manage storm water and prevent soil erosion, however, many don’t typically have a background in hydrology, engineering, agriculture, or environmental sustainability.

“The people who run for the office are usually lifelong residents and ‘nice guys’ who pledge to do a good job,” said Keele. “But voters are largely unfamiliar with the office, which is usually found at the bottom of the ballot sheet and often overlooked. Kalamazoo County is lucky to have Pat Crowley as our drain commissioner.”

Crowley has a Ph.D. from the soil and water division of the Michigan State University Department of Agricultural Engineering and an M.S. degree in water resources management from the University of Wisconsin.

The twice-elected commissioner first came to office in 2008.

“The Coldwater River disaster was wrong for the environment and illegal,” said Crowley. “The property owners of Barry County—as people everywhere—have a love for the land where they live. 

On the other hand, Crowley said this disaster created a strong and sympathetic response among drain commissioners who immediately formed a technical subgroup with the State and private professionals to create detailed guidance for working within a stream environment.   

Dr. Patricia Crowley

“We can tax and there’s power in taxes,” said Crowley. “That’s why people are afraid of us. They don’t expect to be taxed more than the taxes they already pay.”

However, drainage is fundamental to our health and welfare. It helps keep us connected, she said. Taxes pay for drainage of the water that runs underground throughout our cities and rural lands. Drainage allows us to get the kids to school and send fire trucks to burning houses.

“When people come to our office, they are distressed about damage caused by water,” said Crowley. “They are also angry and have no other way of venting their anger. My office tries to help people through an organizational structure of collaboration, listening, problem solving and capacity building.”

The political system needs to adapt to our new environmental realities, added Crowley, however, it is difficult to legislate across the state since each county is different geographically and environmentally. The desires of the public differ, too. For example, some plats want their storm water retention ponds to look like golfing greens while others want theirs to have native vegetation.

“We try to honor local values within the greater context of storm water management,” said Crowley. “What’s important to understand is that we all depend completely on drainage systems to carry on our lives.”

Michigan is one of the few states that elects its drain commissioners.

“It’s not about passing another law,” said Keele, “but about people knowing what the drain commissioner does, and how the office espouses their values. Then, they need to vote for qualified individuals.”

UPDATE: Residents on the Coldwater River will now have to pay for the cleanup that resulted when the contractor cleared trees from the banks. For some, this property tax is more than $1,000; it was levied by Barry County Drain Commissioner Russ Yarger.