Drainage Ditch 14: County advises no more patches

LONG SIDING – Mille Lacs County held a neighborhood meeting in Long Siding at the Princeton Township Hall Dec. 13 to talk to landowners about the maintenance and repair issues associated with nearby county drainage ditch 14.
County Engineer Bruce Cochran, ditch inspector and environmental resources technician Dillon Hayes and county drainage attorney John Kolb facilitated the meeting. They said the county is essentially getting nowhere with patches and small repairs to a drainage ditch built in 1928, and it needs input from the affected property owners about how to proceed.
Drainage ditches run throughout Mille Lacs County, and the state decrees in statute 103E that the county is responsible for inspecting, maintaining and repairing them, though some have not been inspected or maintained in all their years of existence. The money to work on the ditches comes from a special tax assessed to the landowners who “benefit” from the existence of the drainage ditch. How much they pay depends on how much land they have and to what degree it benefits from the drainage system.
Mille Lacs County has 10 publicly maintained drainage ditches. One is tiled and the others are open. Historically, assessments were charged to build the ditches but ended after that, with nothing collected for eventual maintenance or repairs. Now when regular inspections or a landowner’s petition for repair show that the ditches need work, affected owners are assessed for the cost of that work.
Some spot fixes have been done on ditch 14 since 2002 and benefits were redetermined in 2015. Some assessed owners are still paying on that debt – “#14a.” Any repairs that are made to the failing ditch from here on will be paid with another assessment – “#14b” – to those same landowners.
Cochran and Hayes said the potential cost to reconstruct the main part of the drainage ditch and its pipes would be somewhere in the neighborhood of $300,000 to $500,000. Landowners would have to petition for the reconstruction and then the assessment would be added to their taxes with 3 percent interest for a maximum of 20 years.
Kolb explained that the ditches were created when groups of farming neighbors got together and decided to pool their money for a cooperative drainage system. He said the taxpayers have options and the purpose of the meeting was to get a feel for which option they want.
First, landowners can keep letting the county make repairs as landowners request them or inspections show a need for them. Second, landowners could petition the county to do a complete reconstruction of the main ditch to restore it to its original capacity. Third, landowners could petition the county to abandon the ditch, which would basically mean it is no longer the county’s responsibility and it is no longer a cooperative system in which all are expected to participate.
Kolb pointed out that the county was not required to hold the meeting, but the ditch situation had come to a point where they wanted input from the landowners. As Cochran had said, the county has been chasing solutions on the ditch for the past 15 years; he said the patches and Band-Aids are not working for the long-term.
“The (county) staff has determined that the (drainage 14) system is basically shot,” Kolb said.
Taxpayers had asked in April about doing a televised inspection of the ditch, but the county personnel had learned that the cost is prohibitive with 4 miles of ditch at $1 per foot. The crowd questioned past repairs and said fixes that helped one person along the ditch sometimes negatively affected other landowners.
Problems throughout the main and sub lines of the ditch include sink holes, eroded soil, slow or no drainage, pooling water, deteriorating concrete pipes, settling and sinking, moisture-retaining soil and others. The landowners talked about what they experience and looked at drainage maps together.
None of the landowners wanted additional assessment but none suggested a petition for abandonment. As the discussion progressed, it seemed apparent that most of the issues experienced are near where the ditch crosses Highway 169.
Cochran said the drainage-ditch area under the highway is a mystery. The landowners said it wasn’t sensible to make a decision about the ditch or spend money on it without knowing what’s happening in that part of the ditch. A person suggested that before making a decision they do a televised inspection of just the part of the ditch system that runs underneath Highway 169.
A taxpayer asked what happens if there is a problem with the ditch under the highway. The officials said the Minnesota Department of Transportation owns that right of way, and any drainage ditch repairs in that right of way would be its responsibility.