The Free Press, Mankato, MN

December 12, 2011

Special Report, Day 5: More buffers likely to be required for drainage ditches

By Tim Krohn
Free Press Staff Writer

Few argue there are ben­efits to grass buffer strips alongside open drainage ditch­es.

They filter out fertilizer and chemicals and can slow erosion and sediment getting into waterways.

But across the countryside there are very few of the recommended 16
1 2 -foot strips of grass next to ditches.

That will begin to change as more counties begin taking an action that will trigger lan­guage in a state law requiring buffers.

With farmland fetching $6,000-$10,000 an acre, few farmers are volunteering to add buffer strips, thereby taking land out of production.

A 1977 law requires the buffer strips along open drainage ditches in just two cases. One is if a ditch is “improved,” which means it is made larger than originally designed. Such improvements very rarely take place.

But Tom Kalahar, who’s been with the Renville County Soil and Water Conservation
District for 30 years, said another part of the law will bring more buffers.

“If there is a re- determination of benefits, the 16  1 ⁄ 2 -foot buffer (requirement) kicks in.”

Determination of benefits is a complex formula that determines all of the farm land that drains into a ditch and how much farmers who own those acres benefit from the drainage system.

They then pay their share of costs — based on those determinations — when a ditch needs to be cleaned out or otherwise maintained. “ What’s happening is a lot of ditches are being re- determined because the benefits were originally determined 70 or 80 years ago,” Kalahar said.

With more land now under till and changes made to drainage systems over the years, those benefit determinations are out of date and aren’t fairly dividing costs among affected landowners.

Many area counties are beginning the process of redetermining ditch benefits across the entire county. When that process is done, the buffers along ditches will need to be added.