Ag drainage network shows age
Editor’s Note: This is the first installment in a series on agricultural drainage in Nobles County and its benefits and costs to landowners and the environment.
WORTHINGTON — When drivers traverse the gravel and blacktop roads of Nobles County, they soon realize which roads are in good shape and which ones could use extra gravel or a new layer of bituminous surface.
It’s easy to see the potholes when they are right in front of our eyes.
Yet, just as we experience the continual degradation of our highway and byway system, there’s an entirely separate system underground that we don’t see — a virtual thoroughfare of tile lines that carry excess water off our rural landscape and transport it to lakes and rivers and ultimately into the Gulf of Mexico.
In Nobles County, there are two different types of ditch systems that act as outlets for farmers’ private tile lines. The county ditch and judicial ditch systems were established in the early 1900s, though despite its labeling, the county doesn’t own any of the more than 400 miles of county and judicial ditches established here.
Nobles County Public Works Director Stephen Schnieder suspects the county and judicial designations came from the branch of the court system that approved ditch plans a century ago.
“The initial design … was to take the surface water off of the land to drain the potholes,” Schnieder said. “Oftentimes, these areas made better pasture and hay ground.”
Back then, when farming was done with horses and more farmers grazed livestock, the pastures were necessary. The days of horse-drawn wagons and livestock on every farm yard are gone, however, and there is no longer a great demand for pasture.
“Now we’re tiling more and we want groundwater to be absorbed faster,” Schnieder explained. “You can farm more efficiently and farm more areas that were traditionally wet.
“The (ditch systems) weren’t designed to take the amount of water that’s being drained in today’s farming practices,” he added. “The tile line can only drain so much water out in a minute, an hour, a day and a week. People wish they drain better, but unfortunately (the ditches were) designed to drain the surface water.”
Since ditch systems are maintained by those who benefit from them — in some cases involving dozens of landowners — the county or governing watershed district manages the systems on behalf of the group.
As aging tile lines begin to crumble, clog or cease to work, Nobles County is one of many across southern Minnesota faced with a dilemma. Replacing tile lines in the ditch system will come at great expense to the property owners who benefit.
At the same time, there are many cases in which landowners benefitting from the system today aren’t paying for it. It’s a problem that has gone on for years, perhaps even decades, as farmers add more tile to their own lands and outlet them into a nearby ditch system.
When the ditch systems were initially established in Nobles County, tile lines crossed the lands of multiple owners and drained into a common outlet. At that time, those who drained land into the ditch were identified and required to pay an assessment to the ditch authority.
The county continues to collect those payments today as assessments on property taxes from benefitting landowners.
“If you have something built in 1910, you can levy just 50 percent of the initial cost to construct the system,” Schnieder said. “In order to keep the systems up, they can’t levy enough to maintain (them).”
When that happens, the ditch system borrows money from the county to pay for the work. In recent years, those instances have generally been to clean out a ditch — far less costly than a tile system replacement would be. As the ditch funds are built back up through collection of assessments, the county gets its money back, plus interest.
While ditch system balances in Nobles County haven’t fallen too far behind, all it will take is a line replacement to set the ditch fund back to a point where it can’t get out of the hole. Schnieder said that’s why the redetermination of benefits is needed on these aging ditch systems.
“It might not be too long in the future where some of these systems don’t raise enough revenue to cover the costs,” he said. “We may not have problems for a few years, but when you’re the one whose land isn’t draining, someone’s going to ask why we didn’t do this earlier.”
Schnieder estimates the cost to replace aging lines in the county and judicial ditch system in Nobles County is close to $25 million — 25 percent higher than it was in 2008, when he initially approached the county board about improving some of the aging lines.
As costs rise to replace these aging ditch systems —proposed improvements to County Ditch 11 and three of its branches in central Nobles County are estimated at more than $830,000 alone —landowners are at odds to fix them. Meanwhile, the time it may take to get an assessor in to redetermine benefitting landowners — thus ensuring the benefactors of an improvement are helping to pay for it — could take a couple of years or more.
“Since I got here 30 years ago, people have been complaining about these systems that don’t work,” Schnieder said. “Occasionally we find a problem, but oftentimes we find the systems are working just fine — it’s just too much water that’s coming into the system.”
Despite ditch systems being established in the early 1900s to 1920s, there are some “very good tile” lines still in place, while others are in “very poor shape,” Schnieder said.
“We need to be prepared for the future,” he said. “At some point there’s going to be a county engineer, a county board, a county auditor who is going to have to deal with this. If we plan ahead, it’s going to be easier for someone in the future.”
Daily Globe Reporter Julie Buntjer may be reached at 376-7330.