Ray McCormick has found himself battling Mother Nature with increasing regularity over the years, to the point now where he can't wait any longer for allies to maybe join his cause.
“I'm just going to take the project on myself,” he said. “I can't afford to wait any longer.”
Ground which McCormick farms near the Knox/Daviess County line floods whenever the nearby West Fork of the White River leaves its banks, something it's been doing with increasing frequency in recent years.
When the height of the river exceeds 20 feet, which it's done 33 times (so far) since 2000 (compared to only 23 times in the previous 87 years, according to the National Weather Service), including on Feb. 12 of this year when the river reached its fifth-highest crest on record at just over 24 feet, the additional water transforms Patrick Ditch near Wheatland from a stream into a river.
When that “river” tries to pass under U.S. 50, the force is so great a whirlpool effect is created; when the water shoots out from under the highway it's moving so fast it has been washing away a levee that protects a 300-acre field McCormick owns.
The whirl-pooling causes additional problems on downstream, to other fields as well as to county roads and bridges.
The Knox County Drainage Board has been looking at the issue, not just at the site where the water goes beneath the highway but also at the downstream problems. Landowners brought their concerns to the board in December of 2015, asking for help; last summer the board agreed to add the ditch to its long-range plan, with the intent of eventually cleaning it out all the way downstream to its confluence with the White River.
The 5-mile long ditch manages an estimated 3,000-4,000 acre watershed. County surveyor Dick Vermillion says Patrick Ditch is classified as a regulated drain under the board's jurisdiction, though no assessment has ever been done and therefore no money is being collected to pay for regular maintenance work.
There was talk of making Patrick Ditch the next project the board took on, with the work possibly even starting later this year. But the board voted to continue working with property owners within the larger Bonewitz/Dellinger watershed this year.
That means any work on Patrick Ditch couldn't be done for another three or four years.
“And I can't want that long,” McCormick said. “The frequency with which the river has been flooding now, I can't take the chance of losing that whole field, and that's going to happen if I wait.”
McCormick has brought in, among others, former county surveyor and one-time Vincennes city engineer Duffy Stradtner to evaluate the problem, and Stradtner, in turn, ask David Derrick, a Mississippi-based fluvial geomorphologist (i.e., an expert on rivers) to have a look.
Derrick came up with a plan to push back the levee 100 feet along the half-mile length of McCormick's field.
“I'm going to be giving up a lot of my field,” McCormick said. “But better to give that up now than to lose all of it later.”
The work would widen the ditch, slowing down the velocity of the water as it shoots out from beneath the highway. Slowing down the water flow would also reduce the amount of silt filling up the ditch downstream.
“What Ray's proposing would help out a lot of landowners downstream,” Vermillion said. “And the county with road damage and bridge damage.”
Drainage board chairman Jim Sexton asked if there was any way to get the Indiana Department of Transportation to help. There's a general consensus, at least among everyone not employed by INDOT, that the highway's design, itself, is the major cause of the problem.
“Could we get someone from INDOT to come to a meeting and talk about this?” Sexton said. “This is going to be a pretty expensive project for Ray to have to take on all by himself.”
“Get someone to come to a meeting? We can't get anyone from INDOT to return a phone call about this,” Vermillion said. “They don't want anything to do with this.”
McCormick said he has a few permitting hoops yet to jump through but he hopes to get started this summer. He said he wants to do as much of the work as he can himself in order to hold down the project's cost.
“But it's still going to be expensive,” McCormick said.
The Bonewitz/Dellinger ditches in the southeastern part of the county run to nearly 13 miles winding their way from near the South Knox schools on Indiana 61 to south of Main Street Road, providing drainage for 16,500 acres, much of it prime farm ground.
Downstream the ditches' confluence with Williams Ditch forms the Upper River Deshee; that eventually forms Pless Ditch that carries water on down to the White River at Decker.
“Really, what we have out there is one massive watershed with all these drains running together,” Vermillion said, calling the Bonewitz/Dellinger watershed by itself “a monster.”
For years landowners in the area have been trying to get the county to take action on getting the Bonewitz/Dellinger ditches cleaned out. Some 40 years ago there was an initial movement towards getting the work done. But that eventually petered out.
A contingent of landowners were again in attendance at Wednesday evening's drainage board meeting, almost four years to the day they had last come in search of the county's help.
“We saw where we were next on the list,” Duane Vories said.
Indeed, last month the board agreed the Bonewitz/Dellinger ditches would be the next project to be undertaken.
Now the question is whether the board will have enough money to do the work.
An analysis done by Vermillion put the cost at around $340,000 just to clean out the channel, removing long jams, trees and other obstructions.
“And that was a couple of years ago,” he said. “I don't know what it would be now.”
It is unlikely the board would have that much money available in its General Drain Improvement Fund by the end of the year.
Board member Terry Vieck suggested doing the project in stages, using what money the board would have and addressing the worst section first. Even if it meant only doing one side of the ditches “it would be money well spent.”
Vories pointed to the area between Ind. 61 and Hart Street Road as being where water flow is the most constricted.
“If you can clean that area out first, that would be a big help,” he said.
Finding the money will still be a challenge. The board hopes to receive an additional “loan” from the county council to make sure its work won't be delayed.
“The quicker we can get on this the better,” Vieck said.
Vermillion said he'd actually found the original designs for the ditches, dating back to 1946-47, which would be a “huge help” in re-establishing the ditches' original designs.
“Hopefully, the reference points are still there,” he said. “Some of them mention a nail in a tree or a mark on a bridge abutment.
“Maybe those trees are still there and those bridges are still there, but after 70-plus years, you kind of doubt it.”