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High court to rule on western Minn. ditch dispute

MONTEVIDEO — The Minnesota Supreme Court will be ruling on a dispute between the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources and Chippewa County over a ditch draining 17,200 acres in Chippewa and Swift counties northeast of Milan.

The court heard arguments Oct. 2 in a legal challenge raised by the DNR over Joint Ditch 9.

The DNR has expressed concerns that repairs planned for the ditch will adversely affect wetlands in the watershed, lowering the water table by two feet. The ditch system was built in 1910, and drains the area northeast of Milan to the Chippewa River.

Last year, the Chippewa County Board of Commissioners adopted an engineer's report establishing the slope and grade of the ditch for a repair project.

The original records of the ditch had been either lost, destroyed or were not complete enough to establish the cross-section profile needed. The county contracted with Chuck Brandel, a professional engineer, to complete a new analysis, and he developed an 83-page report setting slope and depths of the ditch.

The DNR is challenging the county's action to adopt the report to re-establish the slope and grade. While the department was included in part of the engineer's work to prepare the report, as is required under state statute, the DNR charges in its appeal that it was "inexplicably excluded from other investigative work, including work conducted around two important road crossings."

In the appeal, the DNR cites concerns that the slope in the report is "significantly lower in elevation" than the current existing elevations. Lowering the slope would cause wetlands to be lowered by 1.7 to 2.1 feet.

The department also cited concerns that the proposed grade for branch 2 of the ditch would result in a loss of more than one acre of a public waters wetland. It also raised objections to the grade proposed for a 1,600-foot section between the main branch and branch 1. It charged that the new grade would be lower than the legal grade at one of the road crossings.

The county adopted the report on Dec. 6, 2017, and the DNR received it via email on Jan. 8, 2018.

In its response, the county stated that the engineer examined old records and photographs, flew drones, and took soil borings to locate the boundary between the original, undisturbed soil and the constructed channel when developing the report.

The county stated that a representative of the DNR was present with its engineer for work impacting the state's interests, "and that the DNR representative left the worksite indicating concurrence in the investigation."

The DNR's assertion that it was excluded from the process is "not accurate," stated the county in its response.

The county also claims that the proper forum to address the concerns raised by the DNR will be during the repair proceeding.

Tom Cherveny

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

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