MN Drainage Confusion: Finding the “Missing Link”

  Back to News

  NICOLLET COUNTY (MN) - 01/22/2019 (

This is Part Two of a Three-Part Series about how local farmers are using their drainage project to shift from the drainage confusion to drainage collaboration.  This series describes how state drainage policy is not the root of confusion, but local drainage governance is.  Their quest is to collaborate with farmers, conservationists, citizens, and local governments across the state to change this.

Twelve Nicollet County farmers mired in ditch confusion found the “missing ink” between state drainage policy and local drainage governance and are developing a guidebook and checklist to prevent others from the same fate.

Resolving this issue does not require changes to state drainage law, or even permission from state legislators or county commissioners.  It can be resolved with old fashion know-how and new fashion technology.

About the only thing more common than confusion occurring in drainage projects is blame being cast at the state’s drainage law.  But the landowners found little to fault in state drainage policy as it describes ditch project requirements in about a half-a-dozen steps.  In hindsight, the landowners found this clarity disappeared quickly as local governance took the reigns.   

State Ditch Law in brief:  Ditch law requires 26% of the landowners in a watershed to start a petition to create a project.  Once a petition starts, the Ditch Board is required to contact the conservation district to determine if any external funds for water quality and conservation are available. There are stipulations about adequate outlets as well.  After this information is received, the project can go forward as long as the costs are not more than the benefits provided by the project.  The benefits are determined by “ditch viewers”.  Ditch viewers assess what lands will be drained by the project and the subsequent increase in value of those farmlands.  If the viewer determines the lands benefit a lot, then the project budget goes up, if they determine less benefits or more damages, the project budget goes down.  The viewers’ report determines the upper limit of the project cost and what ratio farmers will pay.  If the final engineering costs are below the determined benefits, the project can be constructed.

The policy, or the “what” of drainage projects can be read and understood. What is confusing is keeping track of the “who and how”; the local governance of drainage projects.  That information must be provided to be understood.

What is Local Governance?

State drainage policy is unique in that it leaves much of the “governance” or decision-making up to non-government people.  In most state policies, such as conservation programs, or the recent ditch buffer law, the governance or the “who and how” are clearly spelled out in the policy and the governance lies with the government.

In state drainage law, landowners are free to petition a project, and they become the “governors” of the project.  If the county accepts the petition, this decision-making role is delegated to other non-government people; engineers, hydrologists, viewers, and attorneys.  The petitioners, themselves, often lose control of the “governance” once the county accepts the petition.  Having non-government people “govern” the project is not the issue, it is the failure of informing affected landowners of the “who and how”.  If this information is not provided in a usable format, it cannot be known.

Landowners need a “Shared Governance” Scorecard

Essentially, every ditch project in Minnesota has a unique local governance structure that is “governed” by entities outside the state and county governments.  Few landowners could possibly know the specifics of the “who and how” of any drainage project, unless someone or some entity provided a usable local governance “scorecard”.  And it appears no one does. 

Who is Obligated?

As noted in Part One of this series, the county staff informed the landowners that “it was not the [county’s] obligation to provide project cost information to landowners.”  If that is true, then landowners need to know if it is anyone’s obligation.  If such an obligation does not exist, it behooves an organization or interested party to step into that role, so the petitioners and non-petitioners are aware of the “who and how” of identifying costs. 

 Resolving this issue does not require a state drainage policy change or even permission from the state legislators or county commissioners.  It can be resolved with old fashion know-how and new-fashion technology. 

Ditch 86A Project Went off the Policy-Governance Rails Early

Without a policy-governance scorecard few can know when a ditch project goes of the policy-governance rails.  Ditch 86A petition started out properly with at least 26% of the landowners signing a petition.  After that, local governance did not follow the path provided by state policy.

Unlike other portions of drainage law, state statute is very clear about the policy and the governance of seeking external funding early on. 

It states, “the drainage authority shall investigate the potential use of external sources of funding… this investigation shall include early coordination with applicable soil and water conservation district…for these purposes (wetlands, wildlife, fish, groundwater, etc.) and alternative measures.”

According to reliable local sources, the Nicollet County Ditch Board never consulted with the conservation district. Many or most all of the landowners were not aware of federal and state funds until after the final order was approved on November 13, 2018. 

Landowners learned that up to 1,500 acres of land in Ditch 86A was eligible for payments of $9,000/acre, or a total of $13.5 million.  These are lands that are at the fringes of Swan Lake, the nation’s largest prairie marsh.  The issue with skipping this step, according to the lead viewer, is that once the viewer makes their benefit determination, lands that are eligible for conservation and wetland programs can still be enrolled, but they will still be assessed at the full rate as if they are drained and farmed.  This severely reduces the economic benefit of enrolling. 

Also missed early in the ditch process was 24 acres of farmed lake meander land.  The DNR notified the Nicollet County Ditch Board on July 6, 2018 that 24 acres of meander land in the ditch system do not constitute property against which the viewers can assess benefits or damages and they have no record it was legally drained, or that the berm to hold back Swan Lake was legally constructed,

A scorecard to link state policy to local governance would have identified this issue early in the process and prevented this non-compliant issue to continue into perpetuity.

Farmers for Responsible and Equitable Ag Drainage (FREAD)

The dozen landowners appealing the Ditch 86A project have also initiated FREAD, a group that is compiling what they have learned and are developing a simplified guidebook and checklist that connects state policy to local governance. The experience of the landowners shows that having awareness creates a sense of responsibility, and the potential for leadership.

FREAD has created a GoFundMe site to raise funds to support their efforts to develop a compile their experiences and experiences of landowners in other drainage projects.  With this information they will convene interested parties, generate a draft scorecard, publish the guidebook, and put it online and into the hands of those in need.  This guidebook and related resources could be adopted by a farmers group, conservation organization, or a non-profit interested in resolving our state’s water and drainage issues. 

Part Three discusses what information is needed in the guidebook and how such a resource would be helpful to prevent the confusion that exists in many the of state’s ditch projects.

Media Contacts:

person_outline  Full Name:Tim Gieseke
phone  Phone Number:5072768170
business_center  Company:Ag Resource Strategies, LLC
language  Website::
View Results in Google
Promote Your Business keyboard_arrow_right

Join The Community


10 Simple Things To Boost Your PR in 2019

  1. Use Video for B2B
  2. Research the Language of Your Customers
  3. Leverage Imagery for Virality
  4. Prioritize SEO to Improve Conversions
  5. Know Journalists' Needs
  6. Strategize for Earned Media
  7. Keep Blogging
  8. Expand Your Research
  9. Stick to Facts: Counter Fake News
  10. Position Content for Outreach
    100% spam free. We promise to keep your email safe.