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Frustrations are on the rise with waters in Renville County Ditch 45

OLIVIA -- Frustrations are rising faster than the waters in Renville County Ditch 45.

Landowners on the ditch's upper reach alleged earlier this year that discharges from the Southern Minnesota Beet Sugar Cooperative caused some flooding in their farm fields along it. In response, the Renville County Board of Commissioners issued a letter June 23 charging that the co-op was not in compliance with its discharge permit.

They rescinded that charge Thursday, on the condition that the company works with the affected landowners to find solutions within the next 30 days. Thursday's special meeting was just the latest round in an ongoing saga that has vexed company and county officials as much as the affected landowners.

A lot is at stake for Southern Minnesota Beet Sugar, which pledged to do all it could to resolve the flooding issues. Louis Knieper, manager of environmental affairs for the company, said the county's letter of non-compliance -- had it not been rescinded Thursday -- would have led the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency to yank the company's discharge permit on Nov. 29. The company would not be able to process one-half of this year's crop if that were to happen, he said.

The commissioners said they had no intentions of seeing that happen, and expressed their own frustrations with the pickle that both the company and county continue to face.

In 2004, the MPCA directed the sugar company to discharge its treated effluent into County Ditch 45, which is the headwaters of Sacred Heart Creek, in place of County Ditch 37, the headwaters of Beaver Falls Creek.

County Ditch 37 has a much larger capacity for carrying water and it has wetlands that mitigate flooding, but it also has a higher environmental classification. The company had difficulty meeting the higher water quality standards for salinity in County Ditch 37.

Two property owners on the upper reaches of County Ditch 45 have experienced flooding issues they blame on the plant. Larry Zupke, county ditch inspector, said a cut in the bank and a crossing near it are the main problem areas. Ice piling against the oval-shaped culvert that comprises the crossing has been an on-going problem, according to information presented at the meeting.

Knieper said the sugar company is willing to pay the costs for replacing the oval culvert with an arch-shaped culvert that would reduce the risk of ice piling against the crossing.

The company is also offering to pay the costs for installing either flapper or mechanical valves on tile lines in the affected area to prevent water from backing up into the drainage systems.

Knieper said the company monitors the ditch by air, cleans out snow and ice in the channel during the winter, and immediately stops its discharges into it whenever there is a potential for flooding.

Zupke, who expressed dismay that the landowners most affected by the issue failed to attend the special meeting, said they have not been receptive to modifications to the system.

One of the state's leading attorneys on drainage issues, Curt Deter of St. Cloud, is representing the county. He advised the commissioners that they should move forward with steps to solve the problems, while also protecting the landowners from any costs. Along with pursuing the technical solutions offered by the sugar company, he and others discussed the possibility of purchasing land to create a wetland and help mitigate the flooding.

There were also discussions about the possibility of bringing the ditch system into compliance with the often times required practice of planting a vegetative buffer along it. The buffer would go a long ways towards preventing the build up of snow and ice that can impede flows, according to participants at the meeting.

The sugar plant is allowed to discharge up to 1.5 million gallons of water per day into the ditch during the September through March processing campaign. The effluent is discharged at a rate of 3.5 cubic feet per second, which represents a miniscule amount of the total flow in the ditch, said Knieper.

Both the company and county have sent letters to the MPCA asking it to consider allowing the sugar plant to return its discharge to County Ditch 37. The water quality issues that originally led to the change to the smaller ditch have been addressed, according to Diane Mitchell, water coordinator for the county.

The MPCA has not responded to the requests, and Knieper said the company believes the prospects for switching back to CD 37 are "remote.''

Tom Cherveny

Tom Cherveny is a regional and outdoor reporter with the West Central Tribune in Willmar, MN.

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