With the wettest single month in Kansas history finally over and wheat harvest rapidly approaching, farmers are eyeing rural roads with some trepidation, especially the county and township roads they have to traverse to get combines into the field and loaded grain trucks to elevators.
May’s endless downpours caused widespread flooding of streams, creeks and major river systems. Those floodwaters, in turn, stripped roads bare of aggregate, washed out crossings and bridges, and filled ditches with dirt and gravel. In many areas, there are deep ruts and whole sections of roads are missing.
It doesn’t take more than a glance to know that there’s a lot of work to be done before the transportation system that farmers rely on is ready for prime time. The problem is that prime time is here, and the ability to be ready simply isn’t there, either in time or in dollars.
Norm Bowers, road engineer for the Kansas Association of Counties, says he saw a slow-moving disaster in the making months before the endless heavy rains of May brought flooding on a massive scale.
“We already had problems because of the wet winter,” he says. “Then we got the freeze and thaw in March and the gravel and dirt roads started coming apart. We started getting more and more calls about potholes in the asphalt roads.”
Bowers says finding the money needed to fix the widespread problems won’t be easy.
“These kinds of problems don’t qualify for federal disaster aid,” he says. “For that, you have to have a date of an event and be able to prove the damage occurred during that event. The kinds of road problems we have is one of those creeping disasters that is the result of cumulative damage, not one event.”
With county budgets already set based on what’s needed in most years, there’s no place for townships and counties to turn for additional help.
From bad to worse
“Even before all the damage this spring, we had a lot of challenges, especially with bridges,” Bowers says. “One of the issues is how much bigger and heavier farm equipment has gotten. It isn’t just the semis; it’s grain carts and combines and sprayers and manure trucks. We had a bridge go down last year with a grain cart. The driver watched two semis cross and figured if it could handle the semis, the cart would be no problem. But unfortunately, that cart has only one axle. It’s a lot more weight per square foot.”
Across the state, there are a lot of culverts, bridges and roads that have damage ranging from minor to extremely severe.
Bowers says Kansas ranks fourth in the U.S. for miles of roads and a big part of those are unpaved rural roads.
“Kansas has a pretty well built-out system of section line roads,” he says. “This was homestead territory and there was a need for a road to every farm. So, we literally have an east-west road and a north-south road every mile across the state.”
In Sedgwick County, township coordinator Mark Borst says the big challenge is getting aggregate back on the road and dirt and debris out of the ditches.
“There’s a longtime mantra on road building that says, ‘If you can drain it, you can maintain it,’” Borst says. “You have to have a crown on the road and clear ditches. Floods wash the aggregate off the road, flatten it out and fill the ditches with dirt, gravel and debris. It takes a lot of work to get them back in shape.”
In the Kansas counties that still maintain a county-township system of road maintenance — about 20 of them — the job of taking care of gravel or dirt roads that primarily serve the residents who live there falls on the township, which usually has one grader and one operator.
Townships have taxing authority to raise the money to pay that operator, maintain the grader and buy gravel for the roads. However, for most townships, that is a limited amount of money and an already set mill levy that can’t be raised.
Counties, which have more taxing authority, are responsible for maintaining higher-traffic roads and almost all bridges on both county and township roads. In counties that have opted out of the township system, the county is responsible for maintaining both paved and unpaved roads. That applies to most of the state.
Borst says most township operators are also farmers so they have been challenged with both keeping the roads open and trying to get their crops in the ground.
One of those operators is Sedgwick County farmer Mick Rausch, who serves on the township board and drives a road grader in Garden Plain township.
“We’re lucky in Sedgwick County because we have the Wichita tax base and that gives us a better budget,” he says. “But it’s still a struggle to get the roads back in shape after the kind of rains and flooding we’ve had. In our more rural counties, there’s less money to start with but in most cases, more roads to maintain.”
His farm yard looks a little like a township storage yard with a road grader, a gravel truck and a tractor with an implement called a “drag,” which helps level out ruts in the road.
“I can level the road out get rid of ruts with the drag, but I need the grader to move aggregate back up and create a crown that drains water into the ditches,” he says. “Maintaining the road really begins with maintaining the ditches. You have to have to have a way to move the water off.”
The are some roads where the right-of-way is only 40 feet and it can be hard to have useful ditches and still have a road wide enough for a car to pass a combine, spray rig or even a semi.
“If you get too far to the side on a muddy road, you are going to slide right into the ditch,” he says. “And in these conditions, you are going to get stuck.”
Rausch says he tries his best to keep roads “passable” because the population of the township includes both younger families who need to get to work in town and older folks who need to get to the grocery store or the doctor’s office.
“It’s not like it was when I was a kid,” he says. “When we had big weather events, we just stayed on the farm. We had canned goods from the garden, meat in the freezer and water from the well. We didn’t even try to go anywhere. Now, more people have jobs off the farm.”
Passable doesn’t mean ideal, and most rural residents are accustomed to dealing with the challenges of living on gravel roads.
“Most of our grader operators do the best the can, but it’s sometimes just not possible to keep everything in the shape you’d like it to be,” Borst says. “Sometimes you have to settle for passable.”
Marion County farmer Paul Penner says he’d settle for passable. He sometimes has to drive miles out of the way to find a road that he can navigate, even in a 4-wheel drive pick-up truck.
“There are places where it is impossible,” he says. “I have a couple of fields that I don’t know if I can get in to harvest because the only road in and out clearly won’t handle a combine or a grain truck.”