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Commissioners discuss road and ditch maintenance

MORRIS, MINN. - At their meeting Tuesday, the Stevens County Board of Commissioners discussed road maintenance and construction projects for the next several years, including a suggestion to change the current reactive ditch management system to a more proactive system.

Road maintenance plans

County Coordinator Brian Giese told the board that the mild winter has left some extra money in the maintenance budget. He said the funds will be put toward improving gravel roads in the area and fixing problem drainage culverts during the next several months.

Looking to the coming years, Giese briefed the commissioners on a range of plans for improving road surfaces and widening some roads to help prevent accidents. He said the plan is available for review by contacting his office.

Giese said that the current budget and projections into the future--including local, state and federal funds--will allow for road maintenance and re-surfacing, but not for construction of new roads.

"Basically I don't know how we'll be able to continue building roads with current funding," he said. "It's going to be 'perpetual paving;' there's just not money to be building roads anymore."

The problem with this, he said, is that each time a road is resurfaced it gets a little narrower and deepens the lip leading onto the shoulder. This especially impedes agricultural traffic with big implements that require a wide roadway.

He stressed, though, that the budget is enough to maintain safe roads, and that the plan is subject to change based on what the budget is like in the future.

One specific area of concern is CSAH 1 heading north between Hancock and the Milldam Road (CSAH 10). This stretch has the highest incidence of crashes in the county. The road's narrowness and its deep ditches mean that it's easy to run off the road and roll on the steep embankment.

The road is slated to be re-built in 2015 and paved the following year using state funds. The project will involve re-building the section of road to widen it and decrease ditch steepness as well as wetland mitigation.

Commissioner Jeanne Ennen asked what would be done to mitigate damage to wetlands. Giese said any impact on wetlands would be carefully monitored and the county would work with the Minnesota Board of Water and Soil Resources to help minimize the project's effect on wetlands.

Ditch management

The commissioners also discussed a proposal to change the county ditch maintenance policy from being reactive to proactive, hiring a ditch inspector to identify maintenance needs and oversee projects.

"Currently, if a land owner has an issue, they come to us and we look at it," Giese said, using the example of mowing and spraying grass and brush as an example of the current system.

"Right now, we let them [grass and brush] grow until it's a problem and then react to somebody's request or complaint and fix it."

Giese said that a proactive system would include scheduled inspections to evaluate a wide range of drainage, erosion and maintenance needs that, he believes, would alleviate problems in the long run.

"It's very hard to be a drainage authority and make sure our ditches are in good working condition with only input from land owners," Giese said. "We're saying that we think it would be best to be more proactive so land owners don't have to ask for everything. We should have someone to handle routine maintenance such as brush and weed control, and we currently don't."

The change, though, would be a big one for the county, especially for landowners, and hiring a ditch inspector and doing more projects would need to be worked into the budget.

Giese said he believes a proactive policy is the best practice for ensuring the adequacy of the ditch system in the future.

"Generally, the ditch system is not adequate for capacity," he said. "Our ditches are important and we have to maintain them. We can't wait until it's a chronic problem to take steps to address it."

He suggested holding a public forum later in March to gain input on the issue. The meeting is scheduled for Thursday, March 29, but the location is not yet set. Giese said that land owners would be notified of the meeting through the mail as well as announcements in the newspaper and on the radio.

Other business

• The board approved the purchase of a new maintenance truck to replace an aging 1993 vehicle. An amount of $200,000 has been budgeted for purchasing the truck and outfitting it with the necessary equipment.