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Renville County plans to order sugar co-op to clear ice, snow in ditch

OLIVIA -- Renville County will be ordering the Southern Minnesota Beet Sugar Cooperative to take steps to remove snow and ice in County Ditch 45, and will consider imposing fines for flooding that has already occurred along it.

The County Board of Commissioners on Tuesday instructed County Ditch In-spector Larry Zupke to order the cooperative to remove snow and ice due to concerns about flooding in the ditch.

The decision at the meeting Tuesday comes amidst general agreement by the commissioners that the sugar cooperative's use of the ditch for its wastewater discharges is "not working.''

Commissioners would like to see the cooperative return to discharging its treated wastewater -- up to 2.3 million gallons a day -- into County Ditch 37, which has a larger capacity.

The county responded to incidents in December when flows in the ditch backed up field tiles and flooded portions of agricultural fields owned by three different farmers, according to Zupke.

The December flooding put the county in a difficult position. It had the choice of ordering the cooperative to discontinue discharging into the ditch -- and potentially forcing a very costly halt to sugar beet processing -- or risk damage to the ditch and farmlands by working to remove snow and ice.

In response to the flooding problems, the cooperative had reduced but continued to discharge wastewater to prevent the ditch from freezing up, according to Zupke.

The affected landowners want the cooperative to remove snow and ice when there is a threat of flooding, but they are also concerned about the potential damage that will result to the ditch banks and their fields as the result of the work. The landowners have also expressed concerns about potential crop damage from the flooding that has occurred.

Landowners have also emphasized that they do not want to halt sugar processing activities either, said Zupke.

Two of the affected landowners charged that the use of the ditch by the sugar cooperative has effectively pre-empted its intended use for agricultural drainage. "And when we have problems, no one wants to fix 'em,'' said Roger Buesing, one of the affected landowners during discussions with the County Board.

It's all part of an ongoing dilemma that dates to 2004, when the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency urged the cooperative to discharge into County Ditch 45 in place of the larger-capacity County Ditch 37. The sugar cooperative was having trouble meeting water quality standards for the larger-capacity ditch. It has higher water quality requirements due to more diversity in its aquatic life.

The commissioners met recently with representatives of the sugar cooperative about the ditch issue. The cooperative monitors the ditch and works to prevent flooding, but is facing the challenges of processing a large crop and contending with above-normal snow and water flows.

The commissioners took action in September allowing the county to impose a fine of up to $10,000 per day whenever the sugar cooperative is in violation of its permit to discharge into the ditch. The commissioners will be discussing at their next meeting the possibility of imposing fines for the alleged violations in December.

Zupke and the commissioners said they are very concerned about the potential for flooding along the system this spring.

Tom Cherveny

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

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