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Minnesota's high court to hear Limbo Creek case from Renville County

Minnesota Supreme Court will hear dispute in Renville County over definition of public waters. Case has potential implications for public drainage systems and has put environmental and agricultural groups at odds.

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The waters of Limbo Creek run clear as they reach the Minnesota River in Renville County's Skalbekken Park in this West Central Tribune file photo from August 2020. Tom Kalahar, shown, retired as manager of the Renville County Water and Soil Conservation District after 35 years with it and is a part of Protecting Public Waters, a co-litigant in a dispute over the definition of public waters to be heard by the Minnesota Supreme Court. Tom Cherveny / West Central Tribune file photo
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ST. PAUL — The Minnesota Supreme Court has agreed to hear an appeal by landowners and Renville County in the dispute over Limbo Creek.

The state’s high court on Tuesday notified the parties in the dispute that it will review a Court of Appeals decision.

The dispute puts environmental and agricultural groups at opposing sides in a dispute over the definition of public waters that could have implications for public drainage systems in the state.

The Court of Appeals ruled in October that Limbo Creek in Renville County meets the definition of a public waterway, and as a result, an environmental assessment worksheet should be completed before a project is awarded that has the potential for adverse environmental impacts.

Landowners on Renville County Ditch 77 had originally petitioned in 2017 for an estimated $699,880 project to excavate a 5,560 linear-foot-channel into Limbo Creek. The Renville County Board of Commissioners, acting as the drainage authority, approved the project in November 2020 and determined that an environmental assessment worksheet would not be required.

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The Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy challenged the decision, and won the recent decision by the Court of Appeals.

The Center for Environmental Advocacy argues that allowing a channel to be excavated into the outlet of County Ditch 77 into Limbo Creek poses the threat of harm and that decision-makers should know and consider the potential before awarding the project.

The environmental group argues that Limbo Creek is the last remaining, free-flowing watercourse in Renville County. It meets the definition of a public water, according to the Minnesota Environmental Policy Act.

Renville County and landowners on County Ditch 77 argue that Limbo Creek is not on the Public Waters Inventory created by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources in the 1980s. Requiring an environmental assessment worksheet in this case “unleashes uncertainty” and could force case-by-case decisions on whether waterways are public waters, and subject to protections. They argue that 19,000 miles of public drainage systems will be impacted by the Court of Appeals decision.

The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources is currently undertaking a review process to return Limbo Creek and more than 600 miles of other waterways to the Public Waters Inventory.

In its decision to hear the case, the Supreme Court stated it will allow parties to file briefs in support of the landowners and county position. The Minnesota Corn Growers Association, Minnesota Farm Bureau Federation, Minnesota Farmers Union, and Minnesota Soybean Growers Association have all sought to file amicus briefs in support of the landowners and county.

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The Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy and co-litigant Protecting Public Waters filed the original challenge and were supported with court filings by Clean Up the River Environment, Coalition for a Clean Minnesota River, Friends of the Minnesota Valley, Izaak Walton League, Lake Pepin Legacy Alliance, the Minnesota Conservation and Federation and Sever Peterson.

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Landowners on County Ditch 77 petitioned in 2017 for a project to excavate a channel where the ditch outlets into Limbo Creek at this site in Renville County. The Minnesota Court of Appeals ruled Oct. 4, 2021, that the waterway is a public water and that the county must perform a mandatory environmental assessment worksheet, due to the potential environmental impact, before a proposed project to excavate a channel can be approved. Tom Cherveny / West Central Tribune file photo

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