MONTEVIDEO — Despite opposition from downstream landowners, a project to repair Joint Ditch 9 in Chippewa and Swift counties will move forward.
The members of the drainage authority for the two-county system on Monday unanimously approved a redetermination of benefits for the project and viewers' recommendation. About one dozen downstream landowners opposed to the project attended the meeting in Montevideo. They reiterated their opposition to the drainage authority members when allowed to do so after a motion moving the project forward was approved.
The project engineers will now develop specifications to bid the project. The engineer’s estimate for the project is just over $2 million.
Downstream landowners are concerned that the costs being assessed on their properties are far greater than the actual benefits they will receive, and that the redetermination does not take into account the damages they will experience.
Downstream landowner Ruth Ann Lee urged the authority to consider less costly options before moving the project forward. She said the benefits of removing downstream beaver dams and evaluating whether it would be more cost effective to raise frequently flooded roads should be considered first.
She also said that removing sugar-sand soils that are found in the lower reaches of the system will prove to be an ongoing problem and cost for downstream landowners. The accelerated flows will move more of these soils to the area.
Lee also said she continues to hear from some landowners who have not received notices of the redetermination.
“Until these things are addressed, I feel that this should be deferred,” said Lee.
The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources has appealed a total of $53,457.99 in assessments placed against lands in three Wildlife Management Areas in the system, as well as the assessment for 64 acres of cropland being converted to prairie.
The DNR is challenging the practice of assessing 10 of every 40 acres of Wildlife Management Area lands on the premise that they hold or will hold food plots.
The DNR states in its objections that Cory Netland, DNR area wildlife supervisor, met with the viewers on March 9 and again reiterated DNR’s concerns. The viewers stated they would assess all DNR acres in the category for the lowest value lands, "but maintained that 10-acres-per-40 approach was appropriate to keep the farmers happy and everyone out of court.”
Landowner Brad Olson expressed concerns that the assessments against downstream properties are based on assumptions. He also questioned whether the petition for the project met a requirement of including the names of 26 percent of landowners in the system.
John Kolb, drainage authority attorney with the Rinke Noonan law firm, said the 26 percent petition requirement would not apply for this project as a repair. He said the benefits were determined under drainage law. They are based on both direct and indirect benefits, and by a comparison of the landscape with and without the ditch.
Even lands not directly benefited realize value from the accelerated flow and movement of sediment from them, the attorney explained. “It’s not just whether you need the ditch. It’s also what you do with the ditch, what you place on the ditch that can be reflected as a benefit value,” he said.
Upstream landowners petitioned for the project to improve farmland drainage and address flooding on township roads. The project area runs from east of Appleton to near Milan. Originally built in 1910, the ditch connects a series of wetlands.
The project was petitioned for in 2015, but it was subsequently challenged in court by the DNR. The plans developed in 2015 would have adversely affected protected wetlands in Chippewa County, according to the DNR.
An out-of-court settlement was reached that limits the project to what has been determined to be the depth of the channel when first excavated. It also requires that a structure be built to protect public wetlands in Big Bend Township of Chippewa County.
The settlement led to the need for this redetermination of benefits. The drainage efficiency of the system is less than what it was expected to be when the benefits were determined prior to the settlement.
The project is expensive due the need for the structure as well as other protections for wetlands. Equipment will need to be placed on mats and the spoils must be transported to uplands.