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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.”
Water storage needed
The centerpiece of the Ditch 57 compromise is a 3-acre surge basin in the middle of the drainage-way that can store up to 26 acre-ft. of water. The reservoir meters out peak discharges, increasing upstream drainage capacity without overwhelming downstream capacity. “That was the only fair and ethical solution,” says Leo Getsfried, DNR area hydrologist. All public drainage improvements should “meet a standard of no increase in peak flows,” he says. From the beginning, Nienow adds, “that was one of our principal goals as farmers.”
Water storage basins are common on municipal storm water systems, but on a public ditch, “water storage on this scale is unprecedented,” says Austinson, the county ditch manager. One reason is price. Costs to acquire the land and build the storage structures on Ditch 57 topped $250,000. “Storage was essential,” Brandel says, “but the question was, how do we pay for it?”
The landowners, led by Duncanson and Nienow, worked for five years to obtain outside funding. It was a frustrating quest, and “we were very down at times,” Nienow says. Finally, a $485,000 grant from Minnesota’s Environment and Natural Resources Trust Fund, which supports water quality and conservation initiatives, allowed the project to proceed. “Outside funding was key to a compromise,” Duncanson says.
That’s the biggest hurdle to innovative conservation drainage projects like this one, Austinson adds. “Yes, it’s environmentally beneficial, but without the grant money, we couldn’t have done it.” Cost-share incentives have worked well for other water quality improvements on private lands, Nienow notes, and will likely be needed to make future conservation drainage projects feasible.
Ditch 57 improvements were completed in fall 2011. The first test of the compromise design came May 4, when 3 in. of rain fell. The surge basin filled with water, peaking May 6, then emptied over the next 10 days. “We held the rain event in storage,” Brandel says, and “the water remained within the ditch banks.”
Throughout the Midwest, “There’s a huge backlog of public ditch systems that need to be improved,” says Getsfried, the DNR hydrologist. “This project may be in the vanguard.”