WORTHINGTON - A trio of ditch hearings scheduled 45 minutes apart Monday morning ended with all three meetings continuing to a later date.
Representatives from the Nobles and Jackson county boards of commissioners comprised a five-member Joint Ditch Authority for each of the three hearings. Each hearing was to include the engineer’s final report, viewer’s report, public question and comment period and possible action by the ditch authority.
However, with nearly 60 attendees at the Judicial Ditch 24 hearing alone, it became clear that a 45-minute session was far from adequate.
Attorney Kurt Deter, who represents Nobles County in ditch issues, said if all three hearings were to take place, landowners and the Ditch Authority would be in session until midnight or later.
Ultimately, the JD 24 hearing was recessed to bring in the dozens of landowners for the Judicial Ditch 9 and 13 hearings into the Farmer’s Room. Almost as quickly as they were called to order, motions were made to continue the JD 13 final hearing to 9:30 a.m. Aug. 5; and to continue the JD 9 final hearing to 9:30 a.m. Aug. 12. Both the viewer’s and engineer’s reports on those two systems need to be amended, and ditch viewer Ron Ringquist said he has yet to meet with some of the landowners. Landowner meetings are now slated to begin at 8:30 a.m. July 17, with landowners on either the JD 9 or JD 13 system asked to contact their auditor-treasurer to schedule a time to meet that day.
The JD 24 hearing ultimately was continued as well, with the remainder of the hearing process to resume at 9:30 a.m. Aug. 19. This decision was made after the meeting extended into the noon hour Monday.
A petition for improvements to five branches of the JD 24 ditch system was filed in Jackson County in October 2014. Landowners Keith Tordsen, Bruce and Brian Ihnen and Phillip Sonstegard (Jo’s Family Farms LLC) signed petitions for the improvements.
In the more than four years since the request was made, a preliminary engineer’s report was completed, a preliminary hearing conducted and a final engineer’s report was filed.
Shaun Luker, a project engineer with Bolton & Menk Inc., a Sleepy Eye engineering firm that completed the reports, walked attendees through the scope of the project during Monday’s hearing. He said the ditch system was originally constructed in 1917. Serving portions of 17 sections in Round Lake Township and portions of four sections in Indian Lake Township, the ditch system handles water flow from more than 8,100 acres of land. The main ditch is approximately six miles long with 20 branch tiles feeding into it.
The petition requests the branch tiles B, Q, S, T and U be improved. Luker said engineering studies of those branches revealed water flow rates are significantly below the standard drainage of one-half inch per day. Branch T is operating at just 14% as the most restricted flow, with Branch Q operating at the highest rate at 41%.
“Offset joints, cracked or broken pipe, roots - all decrease the capacity of the tile,” Luker said.
Since 2014, he noted 22 reports of broken tiles, two tile washouts, four plugged tiles and four other maintenance issues reported on the system. Each time, repairs had to be made at a cost to landowners on the system.
“We know the tile is in a deteriorating condition and is in need of repair,” Luker added.
Proposed repairs would include replacing existing tile on the five lines identified in the petition for improvement, building two water and sediment control basins (one at the outlet of Branch B and the other on Branch T), and constructing rock inlets and Hickenbottom risers on intakes within road ditches.
When landowner Lowell Baumgarn asked what the other 15 lines feeding into the ditch system looked like, Bolton & Menk engineer Bill Helget said, “we never said the other 15 are in good shape.”
Those lines wouldn’t be studied unless landowners petitioned for their improvement.
The estimated cost to replace the tile on all five branches is $1.8 million - $2.67 million with the water and sediment control basins, temporary rights of way and related work. The cost would be divided among benefiting landowners.
Several landowners spoke up about their estimated charge to rebuild the five lines, including Curt DeVries. He said his share of the cost amounts to $55,000 in a 20-year payment plan.
“You can do an awful lot of tile repair for the $55,000 I would be paying,” he said. “There’s a lot more landowners here that are putting in a lot more than that.
“Three people petitioned for this thing to get maximum production from their land, but they’re doing it on the backs of others,” DeVries said, noting that portions of his own land have been under water in each of the past few years as well as flood events like he’s not seen before.
“If somebody wants to improve their farming practices, they can pay for it,” DeVries added. He said his farm has been in his family for 100 years. The prospect of 20 years of payments in a depressed farm economy has the potential to create hardship.
“Be really careful with this so you’re not making corporate farming bigger,” DeVries said.
Several other farmers were concerned about the capacity of the ditch to handle the flow once improvements are made, and the potential to cause flooding downstream. Helget said the addition of the two water and sediment control basins will decrease flow rates and downstream flooding potential.
When the hearing reconvenes Aug. 19, landowners will again be able to comment or ask questions about the process.