History of Drain Commissioners
In the mid-1800s, people were fearful of coming to live in Michigan because of water-borne diseases such as malaria, cholera, and yellow fever. Because Michigan once had large systems of “swamps” it was thought that the establishment of drainage systems was necessary for public health. Drainage systems (most of them open ditches) were initially installed and maintained by property owners; but conflict soon arose between landowners when the action of one owner negatively impacted another. To provide broader oversight, Michigan’s townships took control of the drain systems around the 1860s. Later, the legislature changed state law to create an office for one countywide elected official.
Early in Michigan’s history drain projects were built to relieve flooding and to make land more suitable for agriculture and development. Although most projects made life more convenient for a new state and its growing population, drain projects in the past were responsible for a significant amount of environmental degradation that included draining vast amounts of wetlands, channelizing (straightening) natural streams, and negatively impacting important wildlife habitat. Fortunately, modern Drain Commissioners strive to balance the need for proper drainage with environmental quality and natural resource management. They are also becoming much more involved in surface water quality primarily through better stormwater management.
Today, Muskegon County has over 100 established county drains that encompass over 216 miles of open storm drains and 21 miles of enclosed storm drains. Additionally, there are some 200 stormwater detention facilities under the authority of the Drain Commissioner. The majority of the County’s drainage districts were established in the early 1900s, so much of the work of this office is maintaining existing systems. Not all drains that you see, however, are under the Drain Commissioner’s jurisdiction; some are County Road Commission roadside ditches, and many others are private.