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Blessings are sought prior to vital review of ditch systems proceeds

WILLMAR -- The county is seeking the blessing of nearly 300 landowners to conduct a redetermination of benefits and assessments for two drainage ditch systems, including one that hasn't been adjusted to reflect changes in technology and property benefits for 103 years.

"We'd like to bring those values and acres up to date," said Loren Engelby, Kandiyohi County ditch inspector.

The county is proposing a review of benefits on County Ditch 23A, which encompasses a 16,000-acre watershed that includes parts of the city of Willmar and agricultural land that extends from east of Willmar to Kandiyohi to Lake Wakanda. The ditch also runs through the dry lakebed of Grass Lake near Willmar.

There hasn't been a redetermination of benefits on the Ditch 23A system since 1953, said Engelby.

The other system slated for review, County Ditch 26, is located in Irving Township in the northern part of the county and includes a 4,800-acre watershed area. Benefits haven't been adjusted in that system since 1908.

Engelby is sending letters to invite current owners of those two ditch systems to an informational meeting at 2 p.m. Feb. 2 at the Kandiyohi County Health and Human Services Building in Willmar to learn about the need for and the process of redetermining benefits.

He said anyone, including property owners who do benefit from those ditches but are not currently identified as owners of the system and are not paying for the upkeep, are also invited.

Engelby said there may be property owners on the fringes of the watershed that are "essentially getting a free ride" because their land is benefitting from having the ditch but they aren't paying for it. They may eventually be brought into the ditch system and be assessed for future management and maintenance costs.

As part of the informational meeting, Engelby said he wants to get the "blessing" of the landowners before going to the Kandiyohi County Board of Commissioners with a formal request to conduct the redetermination of benefits, which can cost between $2 and $4 an acre.

The process also includes the purchase of a one-rod buffer from the landowner on both sides of the open ditch.

If the review does move ahead, Engelby said it could take a year to 18 months to complete.

During that time professional ditch viewers will look at topography, soil types and the amount of water going into each parcel of property to determine the benefit each landowner receives from the ditch and what percentage the landowner should pay to manage and maintain it. Usually, landowners closest to the ditch benefit the most and pay the most.

A preliminary hearing would be held on the viewers' initial benefit and assessment report, followed by individual meetings with each property owner to iron out disputes. The process concludes with a final public hearing.

Engelby said drainage ditch benefits can be complicated, but he compared it to a gas tax in terms of fairness. He said a person who drives many miles on public roads uses more gas and pays more in gas taxes than an individual who drives just a few miles on public roads. The more benefits a landowner receives from a ditch, the more the landowner pays, he said.

There are 106 public ditch systems traveling more than 900 miles in Kandiyohi County. Most of those are operating under the original benefit schedule of when they were built more than a century ago.

Engelby said the county hopes to eventually conduct a redetermination of benefits on all of the ditch systems. "We're going to slowly tackle these," he said. "We believe it's the right thing to do."

Carolyn Lange

A reporter for more than 30 years, Carolyn Lange covers regional news with the West Central Tribune.

(320) 894-9750