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Ditch the old ditches

Tillage that has occurred right up to the bank of Kandiyohi County ditch compromises the integrity of the sloped bank. The practice contributes to water quality problems by allowing erosion and sloughing to occur, and in the long-run also leads to costly clean out and repair bills for the ditch system. Submitted photos

CLARA CITY -- There is sure to be some sticker shock as Kandiyohi County moves forward with a process of taking century-old public drainage values into the reality of the 21st century.

Water quality in waterways like Hawk Creek should benefit, Kandiyohi County Ditch Inspector Loren Engelby told members of the Hawk Creek Watershed Project at a meeting Dec. 4 in Clara City.

Just over a year ago, the Kandiyohi County board of commissioners committed the county to a process of re-determining the benefits in public drainage systems. Kandiyohi County has 106 public systems, including 574 miles of open ditches and 264 miles of subsurface tile lines.

Viewers are to re-determine the economic benefits to lands drained by eight systems to launch the project.

Once they do so, the eight ditch systems will need to come into compliance with state law requiring a one rod, or 16 ½-foot buffer of vegetation on either side of the open ditches. The buffers are very effective at trapping wind- and water-borne soils that otherwise slowly fill the ditch channels and pollute waterways.

A conservative estimate indicates that only 25 to 35 percent of the public ditch systems now meet the standard for buffers in the county, he said.

The re-determination process was triggered by the City of Willmar's project to build a new wastewater treatment plant. The city needs to discharge treated effluent from the new plant into Hawk Creek via County Ditch 46 in place of County Ditch 10, which the existing plant uses. That switch made it necessary to start the re-determination of benefits process for the two affected systems.

Acting as the county drainage authority, the board of commissioners initiated the re-determination process in six other county ditches as well: 12, 19, 38, 43, 47 and 48.

Engelby said the intent is to launch an on-going process to continue re-determining benefits, most likely in sets of eight ditch systems at a time.

Most of the county's ditches were developed in the late 1800s and early 1900s, more to drain land for use as pasture than for row crop. The values ascribed to benefited properties at the time are still on the books: One system has a value of $2,600 to $3,000 listed for its entirety, said Engelby.

More than the economic benefits realized from drainage have changed in the last century, said Engelby. The systems have changed, too. Many miles of private, subsurface tile lines have been added to the public drainage systems. Many of these lands realize benefits that are not recorded as part of the system.

Engelby said they began the process of re-determination with some apprehensions, but things have been going well. "It's really not the big, ugly animal that we feared," he said of the re-determination process.

In 1959 the state allowed ditch authorities to require buffers along ditches to provide access for maintenance work, according to Engelby. Later, the benefits and importance of buffers to water quality became paramount. In 1977, state law began requiring buffers when ditch projects required an assessment of benefits and damages.

Installing buffers takes some land from crop production, but there are big economic benefits to the ditch systems. Buffers slow the erosion that otherwise fills ditch channels with sediment and leads to costly clean up and repair work, he noted.

The ditch system is responsible for compensating landowners for the land used as a buffer, according to Engelby.

Landowners also have the option of voluntarily enrolling their land into the Conservation Reserve Program for use as buffers, in which case a 33-foot swath is protected. The county has seen lots of interest by landowners in using CRP for buffer lands, he said.

The county is also continuing its efforts to assure that ditches are properly maintained. As ditch inspector, Engelby has identified abuses ranging from tillage and planting occurring right to the ditch bank, to over-spraying herbicide where it kills the grasses on the ditch banks. These kinds of abuses cause bank sloughing and erosion that pollute waterways and force costly clean outs and repairs for the ditch system.

Engelby is a former coordinator of the Hawk Creek Watershed Project. Cory Netland is the current coordinator.

Tom Cherveny

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

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