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Proposed ditch policy meets resistance at public meeting

Landowners in Stevens County expressed skepticism and concern over a proposed ditch policy for Stevens County at a meeting at the Morris Armory on Thursday night.

The meeting, convened by the Stevens County Ditch Authority, was designed to discuss and gather feedback about a proposed ditch policy to improve ditch management that has been developed by a small workgroup made up of landowners, county staff and commissioners Ron Staples and Phil Gausman.

Although the ditch systems are owned by landowners, the Stevens County Board of Commissioners acting as the Ditch Authority, is charged with maintaining the system. The Ditch Authority serves as "referee and banker" to ensure the process for maintaining, repairing and improving ditches goes smoothly, said Kurt Deter, Stevens County ditch attorney.

To start their work, the Drainage Workgroup discussed the growing concerns for county ditch systems and worked through a growing list of best practices for ditch systems to try and develop a policy that would serve landowners better, said County Engineer Brian Giese.

The purpose of the new policy is to "help guide the administration ... of the public drainage facilities" in Stevens County, said Giese. The policy outlines the process of making repairs, improvements and redeterminations.

The policy is also designed to address landowner's rights and expectations.

One of the issues of concern in the ditch system was trees, brush and cattails. Across the county, there are systems where tree growth is out of control or just starting to get out of control, said Giese.

The overall system is also plagued by aging and deficient tile systems which are shallow, undersized and unplanned. Part of the proposed drainage policy would included a planned replacement cycle to help deal with these problems better.

Other concerns include erosion protection and water quality and inaccurate benefits and damages. Across the county, the determination of benefits for each system is out-of-date. The problem, said Giese, is that "people walk away [from improvements], scared of the redetermination costs and we end up with a system that fails."

Developing a more comprehensive drainage policy would offer some opportunities for the county and landowners including scheduled ditch inspections, an annual spraying program, planned tile replacements and planned erosion protection controls.

Staples, one of two commissioners involved with drafting the policy, said one of the recommendations of the work group was to hire a part-time ditch inspector in the Highway Department by shifting the responsibilities of one highway technician during the summer.

Overall, said Staples, the idea of the policy is to be proactive about taking care of the ditch system and moving forward with efforts to clean water in the system, which is a concern for government organizations outside Stevens County.

Deter concurred, noting that farmers will be facing more regulations, especially related to pollution and water quality, over the next several years as agriculture loses the political klout to resist regulations from other groups.

A number of landowners, especially those who farm in the northwest corner of the county and have had to work with the Bois de Sioux Watershed District, expressed resistance to the policy. Land owner and former state senator Charlie Berg said now that being part of the Bois de Sioux is "the worst thing that we ever had happen to us."

"You're heading down the same path," said Berg. "I urge you not to go down this path."

Staples said he does not feel the policy would result in a system like the Bois de Sioux.

"I don't think this is leading us in any way, shape or form to the way the Bois de Sioux operates," said Staples. "I know the Bois de Sioux isn't popular in Stevens County. I go to their meetings every other month and I don't like the way they operate either."

One farmer who works with a ditch system in Grant County suggested the Ditch Authority look into a system where landowners serve as ditch inspectors with the permission of the county. Local ditch committees have the authority to hire contractors for minor repairs and work with the ditch authority for bigger projects.

Giese said he was open to other designs for developing an inspection system and welcomed feedback.

Commissioner Jeanne Ennen said the board is continuing to look for feedback on the policy, which is still just a draft. No formal action related to the policy has been taken yet.

"I would encourage everybody to get a copy of the drainage policy so you can read it for yourself and then make comments to us," said Ennen. "It is the farmers and the landowners that are paying for the maintenance and repairs on the ditch system. We really want to know what you think."