There’s an old adage in drainage lore: Whiskey’s for drinkin’; water’s for fightin’!

Upstream and downstream farmers along 100-year-old County Ditch 57 in Blue Earth County, in heavily tiled south-central Minnesota, started out at loggerheads over ditch improvements. But they ended up working together to improve both drainage capacity and water quality – thanks to innovative drainage methods and a determined fundraising effort by local leaders.

From its founding, Ditch 57 “has had a history of ending up in court,” says Blue Earth County Ditch Manager Craig Austinson, “so getting the landowners to come to agreement is kind of unusual.”

The downstream portion of Ditch 57 was improved in the 1970s, but the upper portion was in bad shape. Upstream farmers were losing crops to big rain events, which have become more common in recent years. However, downstream farmers objected to ditch changes that would increase water flow from the upper watershed.

To break the upstream-downstream impasse, local leaders devised a $1.2 million upgrade that incorporates many features new to agricultural drainage systems. These include:

  • A 3-acre surge pond in the middle of the drainage-way to store drainage water, reduce downstream peak flows and filter out sediment
  • An outlet weir to slow water discharge into the Cobb River
  • A two-stage open ditch design that mimics a natural floodplain, slowing water speed and trapping sediment
  • In-channel sediment treatment to store sediment and reduce ditch maintenance
  • Deep-rooted native grass buffers to stabilize ditch banks, reduce repairs and take up nutrients

These innovations, along with a new 24-in. tile line at the top of the system and a 54-in. line in the middle, “improved upstream drainage without impeding downstream drainage,” says project engineer Chuck Brandel, I & S Group, Mankato, Minn. The changes will also cut sediment loss, a pressing water quality issue.

Brandel believes the approach used in Blue Earth County “could be repeated throughout the Midwest.” Beyond that, says Gary Sands, University of Minnesota Extension engineer, the project shows the “tremendous opportunity to look at these ditches as more than just ways to convey water.”