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Court dismisses suit over Hawk Creek bridges

MONTEVIDEO -- A district judge has dismissed a civil lawsuit by Lone Tree Township landowners in Chippewa County challenging a decision by the Joint Ditch Authority for Hawk Creek to replace two, timber-frame bridges with culverts, rather than open span bridges.

District Judge David Mennis ruled that the decision to replace the aged bridges with culverts was a quasi judicial action, and as such, the district court has no jurisdiction over it. The plaintiffs can only appeal the Joint Ditch Authority's decision to the Court of Appeals, and the time frame for doing so has passed.

The lawsuit was filed in July 2009, and the decision to favor culverts over bridges was made in November 2007.

By determining the district court has no jurisdiction in this matter, the judge left unanswered the main point of contention between the two parties.

The landowners argued that a 1962 agreement creating Joint Ditch Authority No. 7, and a 1971 court ruling, requires it to replace bridges with bridges. The agreement obligates the watershed to pay the costs for the replacements.

The Joint Ditch Authority argued that it is required to maintain the hydraulic capacity of the system when replacing bridges, and can install culverts if they do so.

The ruling, filed on Monday, follows a two-day trial held March 22 and 23.

The Joint Ditch Authority includes representatives from the Chippewa, Kandiyohi and Renville County boards of commissioners. It oversees the upper 26 miles of Hawk Creek, which was channelized and made into a ditch with the aid of federal funding in the early 1960s.

The Joint Ditch Authority argued that the proposed culverts would provide the hydraulic capacity to handle a 100-year flood event, while also saving hundreds of thousands of dollars in costs as compared to bridges. One of the bridges to be replaced is more than 80 years old.

There are 15 township and county bridge crossings in Lone Tree Township where 11 miles of channel exists.

The Joint Ditch Authority pointed out that the upper portion of the creek was channelized to handle a five-year flood event, and that the bridges spanning it were designed for a 25-year flood event.

The landowners argued that intensive farming practices, increased agricultural drainage and the addition of treated wastewater flow from the City of Willmar have increased the pressure on the ditch to handle more water. Landowners testified about increased flooding and ice problems at the trial.

They also expressed concerns that the proposed culverts would cause about a four-inch increase in flood staging after a 100-year frequency event, meaning that some water will back up behind the culverts. They also charged that the culverts reduce the area through which debris, ice jams and other obstructions may flow.

As defendant in the case, the Joint Ditch Authority argued that flooding and ice are not unusual.

The judge's decision means that the Joint Ditch Authority can now go forward with plans to replace the two bridges in Lone Tree Township with culverts.

It is unclear when the Joint Ditch Authority will move forward with the replacements. Jon Clausen, Chippewa County auditor, said the Authority will have to determine what funds are available.

Attorney Scott Anderson, Minneapolis, represented the Ditch Authority in the matter and said he was pleased by the decision. He noted that once the court determined that it did not have jurisdiction in the case, it remained silent on the merits of the arguments over how the bridges can be replaced.

Attorney John Kolb, St. Cloud, represented the landowners and was out of town and unavailable for comment when the parties received copies of the decision on Thursday.

Tom Cherveny

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

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