Freeborn County is the first in the Minnesota River Basin – perhaps the first in the state – to complete a process that resulted in filter strips along all public ditches in the county.
That’s 350 miles of public ditches. To put that into perspective, that’s the width of Minnesota at its widest point.
Thanks to the efforts of County Auditor-Treasurer Dennis Distad and Ag Drainage Inspector Phil Tennis, every mile of public ditch in Freeborn County now has a strip of grass at least 16.5 feet wide along both sides. That strip of grass – sometimes called the "thin green line" – filters all the rain water and snow melt running off farm fields. It reduces the amount of soil and other pollutants running into the ditches. In Freeborn County, many of those ditches flow into lakes used by people for recreation and by wildlife for habitat.
Almost 20 years ago, Distad, now serving his sixth term, and Tennis, a retired farmer, started the effort to examine all the public ditch systems in the county. In short, a ditch is a channel that provides drainage for the surrounding land. In Freeborn County, farming relies on drainage to make the fertile soil dry enough to cultivate.
Land owners who benefit from the drainage must pay taxes for that benefit. The taxes go toward maintenance and improvement, mainly removing soil and vegetation from the ditches so water can flow freely. There’s a process called “redetermination” that refigures the benefits, and taxes paid, of a ditch system. Ditch viewers study a ditch system, often walking the banks, and determine the updated benefits as well as damages.
Under Minnesota law, this redetermination kicks in a requirement for a filter strip along the ditch bank that measures at least 1 rod – 16.5 feet – wide. Land owners must receive payment for this filter strip, also called a buffer strip, from the ditch system. The land still belongs to the owners but they must control weeds in it and growing hay is the only cultivation allowed.
While counties administer public ditch systems, no general tax dollars support the ditch systems. Each system – defined by where water drains – pays for its maintenance, repairs and filter strips.
As auditor-treasurer, Distad realized that many of the ditch systems in his county had not been examined since the early 1900s. In some cases, a handful of property owners were financially supporting a system that benefitted hundreds of owners.
And many of those ditches had no filter strips. Some farmers were planting right up to the edge of the ditch or even a couple rows down the bank.
“We started with the ditches that drain right to the lakes because we know the benefits of buffer strips,” Distad said.
The Freeborn County system has worked smoothly with Distad and Tennis refining their process over the years. They seek county board action to start the process instead of waiting for land owners to petition for redetermination. Then they meet with property owners to explain it and answer questions. They invite the local Soil and Water Conservation District (SWCD) to attend, providing an opportunity to promote conservation programs. The process also gives the SWCD and other conservation agencies a chance to change tile inlets and outlets, install sediment basins, rock weirs and other best management practices.
Distad and Tennis hold one last meeting with land owners before the new benefits – and taxes – go to the county board for approval, giving the owners a chance to meet with the ditch viewers and have corrections made.
With the last four ditch systems – out of the 100-plus on the original list – redetermined in 2010, Distad and Tennis have already started a new project. They are recording the right of way for county ditches and tile lines to make people aware of the public system and grass strips when renting and buying land.
Enforcement is also important. Distad and Tennis mount a 16.5-foot rod on an all-terrain vehicle to check the width of filter strips.
“Most people have gotten to the point where they comply,” Tennis said.
He and Distad have noticed that filter strips reduce the need to clean out ditches as often, providing an economic benefit as well as water quality benefit.
“Clean water and habitat are our concerns,” Distad said.
Watch the video on YouTube:
Some counties reluctant to tackle ditch issue
Freeborn County is only one of five in the Minnesota River Basin conducting a determination of ditch benefits across the entire county, according to a 2010 survey by the Water Resources Center of Minnesota State University-Mankato.
Of those counties redetermining benefits – and putting in buffer strips – 75 percent were completed with positive support, though counties reported problems with outdated ditch laws, errors in land records, initiating the process, and defining what constitutes a buffer strip.
In the survey, county officials reported that cost, time, perceptions of the process, political issues and “counterproductive land owners” were all hindrances to the process.
The Water Resources Center presented this insight to the Minnesota River Board earlier this year:
- All parties involved need additional clarification of the process and consistency in redetermining benefits.
- Instead of relying on land owners to petition for the process, it’s best to have county board order the redetermination.
- Increase and improve communication between ditch authorities and land owners.
- Allow land owners to meet with viewers prior to the final meeting where benefits and damages are approved.
- Make sure that buffer programs, through SWCDs and other agencies, can be used before starting the process