Faulty irrigation systems can turn Delaware roads into hazards

An irrigation system on a farm near Leipsic on an early morning last week. (Delaware State News photos by Dave Chambers)

An irrigation system on a farm near Leipsic on an early morning last week. (Delaware State News photos by Dave Chambers)

MILFORD — Ben Hollinger noticed water puddling on the Del. 15 roadway near his home last Sunday and was immediately concerned.

The source of the moisture — a crop irrigation system — was stalled in a cornfield while still shooting out water full force across the road.

Mr. Hollinger imagined a motorcycle rolling up on the deluge, losing traction and spinning out of control into a possible serious catastrophe.

A nearby electrical transformer was also being doused, adding further worry.

At one point, the 77-year-old Mr. Hollinger contacted some kids on bicycles near the water and drew some relief by their response.

“They said they learned in school never to touch water that’s anywhere near electricity,” he recalled.

They also asked “Mr. Hollinger, can you call someone?”

And that’s just what he did, placing a 911 call to alert authorities of the water hazard.

“I told whoever answered the call that ‘I highly recommend someone take a look at it,’“ Mr. Hollinger recounted.

A car drives through irrigation system water on Del. 9 between Smyrna and Leipsic last week.

A car drives through irrigation system water on Del. 9 between Smyrna and Leipsic last week.

Within “15 to 16 minutes” Mr. Hollinger said police were at the scene to investigate. Authorities then contacted a nearby farmer and the water was shut off within about 20 minutes of their first arrival, Mr. Hollinger said.

Driving rural roads right now makes suddenly traveling through a spray of water possible.

Roughly half of Sussex County tillable farm soil is irrigated due in part to its sandy nature, a quarter or so in Kent County.

When an irrigation system near the edge of a field shoots water onto a nearby roadway, there’s a potentially slick surface unexpectedly formed, or at least wetted. A system that becomes stuck might continue to spew water onto a road until it is fixed.

Delaware State Police spokesman Sgt. Richard Bratz said he did not remember any recent safety-related incidents regarding irrigation systems and roadways. However he cautioned that “Drivers and motorists need to be aware when traveling at this time of the year that farmers are using irrigation systems.

“Motorists should use caution when traveling on the roadway, especially at nighttime.”

While there’s concern for motorists, especially on motorcycles, University of Delaware Irrigation Engineer James Adkins said mishaps are fortunately infrequent and becoming even less so as technology improves to better target watering areas and allow quick shutoff capacity when needed.

Currently, there are roughly 142,000 acres of irrigated land throughout Delaware, receiving an average of nine inches of water annually, officials said.

Besides their obvious concern for human safety, Mr. Adkins said farmers have “awakened to potential liability concerns” and take every precaution to prevent watering roadways.

“It takes a little time and planning,” he said.

The down side, Mr. Adkins said is that “Some farmers are losing valuable acreage in a tradeoff of irrigating away from the road.”

Besides, there’s the environmental impact of water spraying uselessly onto a road, destined to evaporate or pond in an unneeded area away from the field, Mr. Adkins said.

“It (wasting water) makes us all look bad,” Mr. Adkins said.

Wells are the only irrigation system with permits required by the state’s Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control.

“Operation is for the farmer to manage,” Delaware Department of Agriculture spokesman Dan Shortridge said.

“(Safety-related) problems do happen occasionally, but are usually fixed quickly.”

Reach staff writer Craig Anderson at canderson@newszap.com

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