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Redetermination of benefits brings fairness and equity to county ditch system

A file photo provided by Kandiyohi County shows a well-established buffer along a ditch in the county. The state requires a 16½-foot buffer strip of permanent vegetation on both sides of an open drainage ditch. Submitted photo

WILLMAR - A process to update landowners' benefits for agricultural drainage ditch systems, which had been feared and avoided for decades in Kandiyohi County, is going better than expected.

Following public hearings Tuesday, the Kandiyohi County Board of Commissioners gave final approval for redetermination of benefits on segments of County Ditches 23 and 12.

The commissioners also approved transferring portions of both ditch systems to the city of Willmar, which will utilize the ditches as part of their municipal stormwater retention system.

The process went well with few hurdles, said Loren Engelby, Kandiyohi County drainage and agriculture inspector.

The same has been true for the redetermination of benefits on eight other ditch systems the county has completed since 2010.

It's been a pleasant surprise for county officials who were concerned landowners would be "digging in their heels" and resist the process, Engelby said .

Instead, landowners are asking if their ditch system can be next on the list to be reviewed, he said.

Many of the county's open ditch and tile systems were built 50 to 100 years ago.

There have been many changes to those systems, with new parcels of land added and additional water flowing into the ditches. But many of those new landowners have not been paying their fair share to maintain the ditches.

Engelby said in some cases landowners have used the ditch systems for free for decades.

When a redetermination of benefits is conducted, trained viewers evaluate how much each parcel in the watershed benefits from having access to the ditch and the landowners are assessed a proportionate amount for that benefit.

"It makes it fair and equitable," Engelby said.

The most expensive - and for some the most objectionable - part of the process is a state mandate to establish a 16½-foot, or 1 rod, buffer strip of permanent vegetation on both sides of an open drainage ditch.

To meet the mandate, members of a ditch system buy land from fellow landowners. If the land is full of cattails and trees, the cost isn't too great, said Engelby. But buying cropland can get expensive.

For example, the required buffer strip on both sides of a one-mile-long ditch amounts to about four acres, said Engelby.

But even that part of the process has gone well. He said people realize that buffer strips hinder erosion, which reduces costly maintenance on ditch systems.

Since 2010 Kandiyohi County has completed the redetermination of benefits process on 10 of its 105 separate tile and open ditch systems that total 850 miles.

There are 12 more ditch systems that are in some stage of the redetermination process.

Admitting it's just a guess, Engelby said it could take 12 to 15 years before all the ditch systems in the county will be reviewed.

"Will it be done before I retire? I hope so," he said.

A shortage of trained and certified ditch viewers, especially lead viewers who can lead the three-person team, is cause for concern as more counties ramp up their ditch review process.

Engelby said Ridgewater College in Willmar has been working with Kandiyohi County, Renville County and the Minnesota River Board to establish a training program for ditch viewers to meet the increasing demand.

Carolyn Lange

A reporter for 35 years, Carolyn Lange covers regional news with the West Central Tribune.

(320) 894-9750