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“Public ditches often cause conflicts between farm neighbors,” says retired Mapleton, Minn., farmer Dick Nienow. One of the most important ways to foster cooperation on a ditch project is to get lots of landowner input early on and reserve plenty of time for planning, Nienow says. “Let growers make suggestions.” Blue Earth County Ditch Manager Craig Austinson agrees: “Landowners often feel they don’t get enough input into a ditch project before money is spent or a petition drafted.”
A history of conflict
Like many Midwest public drainage systems, Blue Earth County Ditch 57 was built in the early 20th century and has been spawning conflict and controversy its entire life.
Built between 1907 and 1921, the 5-mile-long, north-flowing waterway drains more than 6,000 acres of highly productive cropland – nearly all of it tiled. The last major improvements to the ditch were in 1976. By 2007, the upper portions were badly decayed: capacity was down to 50%, the 90-year-old concrete pipes were crumbling, and corrugated metal pipe in the middle of the system had collapsed.
The upland portions of Ditch 57’s watershed flooded regularly, says Pat Duncanson, Mapleton, Minn., who raises corn, soybeans and hogs. Every three or four years, he was forced to replant when the ditch overtopped its banks and inundated his land. In 2010, one of his most productive cornfields flooded three times due to water backup. Other farmers in the upper watershed had it even worse, Duncanson says.
The Duncansons and their upstream neighbors wanted to replace the upper and middle portions of the drainage system with an 84-in. tile line, but the downstream farmers said the ditch couldn’t handle that much additional water flow. “It quickly grew very contentious,” Duncanson says.
Yet, over the course of many meetings, leaders emerged who were committed to finding a workable compromise. “There were a lot of people who wanted to do the right thing,” Duncanson says.
In the process of working together to find a solution, neighbors set aside hard feelings from previous ditch conflicts, and casual acquaintances became good friends, says Dick Nienow, a retired farmer who owns land on the downstream portion of Ditch 57.