Listen: Ditch (Steil)-1433

As part of the series “Polluted Waters - Costly Cleanup,” MPR’s Mark Steil reports on ditch systems in Minnesota and their impact on water quality issues in the state.

Minnesota is home to one of the nation's largest systems of manmade drainage ditches. One estimate says there are more than 20,000 miles worth. The ditches carry water from farm fields, making the land tillable. They also carry eroded soil, and most of the sediment ends up polluting state rivers.

One way to reduce runoff is to plant grassy strips along the ditches to absorb runoff. State law already requires so-called buffers along a small number of ditches, but some say even that minimum requirement is largely unenforced.

This is part three of a five-part series on impaired Minnesota waters.

Click links below for other parts of series:

part 1:

part 2:

part 4:

part 5:


2005 NBNA Eric Sevareid Award, Series - Large Market Radio category

2006 MNSPJ Page One Award, third place in Radio – In Depth – Over 50,000 category


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MARK STEIL: The state's drainage ditch system is a maze of unknowns. How many miles of ditch are there? How many miles are supposed to have grass buffers? How many actually do?

And perhaps the most important question, how much sediment do the ditches carry? The state is searching for answers to those issues, thanks in part to a persistent voice from Southern Minnesota. Greg Royer lives near Sleepy Eye, close to the Minnesota river. It may be the state's most polluted stream.

Dozens of ditches empty into the river. When the Minnesota enters the Mississippi, it leaves a plume of muddy water. Royer says, the time has come to examine how much pollution comes from drainage ditches.

GREG ROYER: We are in a real predicament with the Environmental Protection Agency's Clean Water Act, that we have to do an assessment of the waters and see if they are impaired or not. And I strongly believe that drainage systems contribute at times to the impairment of our public waters.

MARK STEIL: The manmade ditches crisscrossed the rich farmland of Southern and Western Minnesota. Underground tile carries water from field to ditch turning wetlands into farmland. One estimate says the ditches have turned almost 8,000 square miles of former ponds and lakes into productive fields. That's nearly 18% of the state's agricultural land.

Royer says, the ditches are needed. But he also says they should be cleaned up. He says, spongelike grass strips along the ditches would help.

GREG ROYER: That buffer would limit how much water was getting directly into the ditch, limiting the amount of sediment that's being carried along with the stormwater.

MARK STEIL: Minnesota has a buffer requirement in state law. Any ditch built or enlarged since 1977 is supposed to have a 16.5 foot grass strip on each side. Since most ditches were excavated in the early 1900s, the requirement covers only a small number, likely 5% or less, of the state's ditch system. Still, Royer says, the law should be enforced.

Sitting in a car in Cottonwood county, he views a ditch, he says, symbolizes the buffer strip problem. Agricultural ditches are numbered. This is judicial ditch nine. It cuts a v-shaped path through corn and soybean fields near the town of Jeffers.

Wider than a country road, locals nicknamed it the suez canal. It was dug just eight years ago. So Royer says, state law requires that it have the grass buffer.

GREG ROYER: I firmly believe that a big chunk of this ditch is not in compliance with what the statute says.

MARK STEIL: He says, in some places, crops are planted right to the edge of the ditch. That's exactly what state law was meant to prevent. The buffer strip requirement was passed in 1977. John Corbett was the chief house author of the legislation. He says, based on his legislative intent, judicial ditch nine is out of compliance.

JOHN CORBETT: My view of the measurement was that it would be a horizontal measurement away from the edge of the ditch, 16 feet back towards whatever field was being farmed.

MARK STEIL: That means walk 16.5 feet from the edge of the ditch, that's where the crops should begin. But many farmers and ditch regulators disagree with that assessment. As proof, they point to a 1991 drainage manual published by the DNR. In it, an advisory committee interprets how the state's buffer strip law should be applied.

The committee says, in certain cases, the side of the ditch itself counts as buffer, allowing crops to be planted to the edge. The original legislative author, John Corbett, strongly disagrees with that assessment. But many farmers and government officials use the manual as proof they're meeting state law.

But is the manual the same as law? A disclaimer in the publication says, it does not necessarily reflect the views of the state of Minnesota. Standing at judicial ditch nine, Cottonwood county commissioner Norm Holman says, he's unsure whether the channel meets the state's buffer strip requirement.

NORM HOLMAN: Today, standing here looking, I cannot say that, yes, it is or no, it is not.

MARK STEIL: Holman is the drainage ditch inspector for this part of Cottonwood county. Despite that role, he says he's never checked a channel for buffer strip compliance in his three years of elective office. At its most drastic, state law allows a county to install a buffer strip and bill the landowner for the work. Holman says, it's unlikely he'll check judicial ditch nine.

NORM HOLMAN: Because we're not proved that we're out of compliance.

MARK STEIL: Holman says, he won't take any action until others demonstrate to his satisfaction a ditch fails to meet state requirements. Critics say that's an impossible standard, since it's a trespassing crime for individuals to walk on private farmland to measure buffer strips. The questions about judicial ditch nine demonstrate the difficulty of enforcing any state law on buffers.

Still, there has been progress. Many farmers have voluntarily planted protective grass strips. Most join federal programs, which pay them for the lost crop production. One farmer who endorses this path is Redwood county farmer Dave Zwack.

Standing near a drainage ditch on his land, he points out grassy strips more than 100 feet wide on each side. He says, anyone who doubts the benefits of buffers should talk to him. Zwack says, a torrential rainstorm some 30 years ago convinced him to install the protective measures.

DAVE ZWACK: I had some terrific erosion on the home farm. And I said, my way of farming has to change somehow because we were losing the black soil. So I set up this filter strip to keep the water from entering this ditch. And I know it's done a lot of good.

MARK STEIL: Zwack did more than buffer strips. His land is a living laboratory of conservation measures. A large field bordering a river is planted entirely in native prairie grasses.

Zwack is so enthusiastic about protecting land and water, he asked NPR to post his home telephone number on its website, so farmers can call with conservation questions. He also has a sharp eye for historical irony. He says, government officials are working now to fix problems they helped cause.

DAVE ZWACK: This ditch was put in the 50s. And the government actually paid my father to tile it out back in the 50s. Otherwise, this day and age, I'm sure it would be a beautiful lake bed area for the ducks.

MARK STEIL: A state legislative study group is trying to find answers to some of the drainage ditch unknowns. It will canvass local officials about ditches in their jurisdictions. Judicial ditch nine is one. It empties into the little Cottonwood river, which enters the Minnesota river near New Ulm. Cleaning up the Minnesota means cleaning up each of its tributaries, natural or man-made. Reporting from near Jeffers, Mark Steil, Minnesota public radio news.


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