4/13/2018 11:45:00 AM County Board refining ag ditch concerns; including process of defining benefits, repairs, alignments
A state ditch and waters buffer law enacted to improve water quality protections in a state known for its “10,000 lakes” is having a ripple effect on local government. After taking a deep look at the network of agricultural ditches in Chisago County local officials learned that some ditch sections are long overdue for TLC. The annual inspection process hasn’t been as regular as perhaps it might have been, and the condition of some lengths of ditch is dire.
In preparation for tackling long deferred maintenance and fine tuning of the system, the County Board donned their “Ditch Authority” hats and met recently. Ditch law expert John C. Kolb, with Rinke Noonan, attended a work session with the county commissioners, with Lora Walker absent; to clarify what the county can and can not do when it comes to ditches and to help county officials prioritize county responsibilities.
Kolb suggested the Board adopt an inspections schedule and budget for inspections accordingly. He said, “You don’t want to be reactive, you want to be pro-active.” Kolb said, if the county policy is to allow private contractors to do necessary ditch maintenance and repair projects-- there needs to be a written policy allowing for that and the Board needs to “authorize” any activity in the ditch.
A potentially costly task ahead is re-establishing ditch rights-of- way.
Procedural steps are laid out in statute if landowners are uncooperative with right-of-way. Kolb explained “...a lot of on the ground corrections were made at the time” (decades ago when some ditches were installed.) Ditch numbers 2, 3 and 9 were mentioned as needing to be addressed.
Kolb explained ditch “owners,” those who have been assessed over the years as benefitting from the land drainage provided, basically have a property right to see the system kept in repair.
The county has the duty to prevent unauthorized uses, ensure a fair share equal to payments contributed in property tax and to protect the system from damages.
If an unauthorized use is discovered, the ditch authority needs a fee established, to charge the landowner for using the ditch as an outlet.
Historically Chisago County has spent money on ditches only when asked to by affected landowners.
Kolb said the county does not need to wait for permission to do maintenance and repairs and he encouraged taking a more active role.
County Engineer Joe Triplett has been working with Kolb on six ditch sections that need re-alignment so they function as intended when originally laid out. Re-aligning requires a baseline of data and evidence that depicts where the ditch is supposed to be and who it’s supposed to serve.
Kolb explained this means performing hydrological analysis, taking elevations, holding a public hearing and creating a plan.
The county commissioners can borrow to pay for these costs should there be insufficient funds in a ditch account but it requires a unanimous vote. He said, ditches were “...intended by law to pay for themselves, they should be self-sustaining.”
County Auditor Dennis Freed said all active ditches in the county have a levy with revenue deposited into the bank account for that ditch. Kolb explained the county can transfer funds from ditch to ditch, but there must be a plan to payback the account that’s borrowed from.
In cases where a ditch is wholly inside of a city, and the city seeks to use the ditch for more of a stormwater function, the city can ask the county to transfer the ditch to the city.
It is up to that city to ensure then, that the ditch still functions. The county remains the ditch authority until that happens.
Cities will often develop a stormwater area boundary and collect a stormwater fee from parcels within the benefitting area for maintaining the ditch.