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Longtime Hawk Creek bridge dispute is on its way to court

A lawsuit filed in Chippewa County asks the court to determine the rights and responsibilities of the Judicial Ditch 7 or Hawk Creek Drainage Authority as it decides how to replace timber bridges spanning the waterway in Lone Tree Township. There are 13 timber bridges, like this one on 20th Street Northeast. Tribune photo by Tom Cherveny

MONTEVIDEO -- A dispute that could be said to be over 40 years in the making has five county commissioners and the county attorneys from Chippewa, Renville and Kandiyohi counties huddled together in a closed meeting today in Montevideo.

The commissioners represent the Judicial Ditch 7 or Hawk Creek Drainage Authority.

They are meeting with their county attorneys to determine how to respond to a lawsuit filed by landowners in Lone Tree Township in Chippewa County.

The recently filed lawsuit asks the district court to spell out what is required when bridges spanning the upper 26 miles of Hawk Creek are to be replaced.

The 26 miles of channel were straightened and made into Judicial Ditch 7 under terms of a 1962 agreement.

Landowners in Lone Tree Township are upset with decisions made in the last couple of years by the Drainage Authority to replace some of the aging, timber bridges with less costly box culverts. The township landowners made known their desire to see the old bridges replaced with new bridges, rather than with culverts.

But whether bridges or culverts are installed, the new structure must provide the same hydraulic capacity as the structure it is replacing, according to attorney John Kolb, of the Rinke Noonan law firm in St. Cloud. He is representing the Lone Tree Township landowners.

Kolb said the lawsuit asks the court to define the rights and obligations of the 1962 agreement, and what is required to provide the same hydraulic efficiency. The Lone Tree Township landowners charge in the lawsuit that a decision by the Drainage Authority in November 2007 to replace two of the township bridges with box culverts fails to meet the terms of the agreement.

The Lone Tree Township landowners charge that the chosen box culverts will not provide the same hydraulic capacity during high-water events.

When the Drainage Authority selected the box culverts, the members said they were designed to provide the same hydraulic capacity for water flows up to those experienced in a 25-year flood event, or for which the Judicial Ditch 7 system was designed to handle. Providing a greater capacity at road crossings than the channel itself offers would represent a "misuse'' of public funds, according to the Drainage Authority board members.

The authority's engineer estimated that the selected box culverts represented a savings of $262,000 as compared to replacing the bridges with bridges, and a savings of $54,000 as compared to installing what he termed "oversized'' culverts.

At this point, Chippewa County has not ordered the culverts for the two township bridge replacements, but plenty is at stake. There are 15 bridge crossings in Lone Tree Township alone, two of them on county roads and the remainder on township roads.

One of the county road bridges had been replaced with box culverts. The county could be required to remove the culverts and install a bridge if the court were to agree with the landowners' understanding of the 1962 agreement, according to Kolb.

Also, the court's decision will ultimately determine how the 13 township bridges are replaced in the years ahead. Most are reaching the end of their expected life spans.

The 1962 agreement requires that bridge replacement costs above those paid by the state and federal governments be assessed to the drainage system. Normally, those costs are borne entirely by the township, not the entire drainage system.

And then there are the landowners downstream of Lone Tree Township who have charged that replacing the old bridges with new bridges -- or even with culverts of greater capacity than the channel -- needlessly increases the assessments they must pay, while also increasing the potential for flooding on their lands.

Other issues charge the emotions in this dispute as well. Many along the system contend that the flow from the Willmar wastewater system in the winter causes ice to layer and increases the propensity for flooding. Also, the addition of many miles of farm drainage tile since the Hawk Creek Project was completed in 1966 greatly speeds the rate at which water reaches the channel.

Chippewa County Attorney Dwayne Knutsen said he could not discuss how the authority will respond to the lawsuit, but he anticipates that it will be to challenge it.

He will be joined at the table in Montevideo today by county attorneys David Torgelson of Renville and Boyd Beccue of Kandiyohi County along with commissioners Jim Dahlvang and Gene Van Binsbergen of Chippewa County; Richard Larson and Dean Shuck of Kandiyohi County; and Lamont Jacobson of Renville County.

Tom Cherveny

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

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