Attorney Kale Van Bruggen speaking about the Ditch 18 update before the Stevens County Board of Commissioners. (Photo: Marshall Hoffman)

Attorney Kale Van Bruggen of Rinke Noonan presented the Stevens County Board of Commissioners with an update of the County Ditch 18 project. Van Bruggen had a chance to meet with attorneys for the Izaak Walton League, which had petitioned for an environmental review of the project. The Commissioners had earlier rejected any further studies, feeling that the engineers and attorneys had addressed every point in the petition and found the ditch project to be solid and, in their view, environmentally sound. An appeal of that decision is still open until mid-December, and Van Bruggen notified the Board that the petitioners would not file an appeal if the County agreed to host an educational Field Day along with the Soil and Water Conservation District. No financial commitment was asked for, other than the possibility of spending up to $1,000 to publicize the event.

But Van Bruggen received pushback from Commissioners Ron Staples and Donny Wohlers, who saw it as an effort to tell farmers how to farm and part of a broader sinister strategy by environmental groups to challenge County ditch systems throughout the state. Here’s Commissioner Staples:

“They’re gonna do this to every ditch system in the State of Minnesota,” said Staples. “It’s time to put an end to it right now.”

But Van Bruggen argued that the ditch landowners would be the ones paying for a potentially costly appeal, which might not be worth it since educational field days are something the Soil and Water Conservation District already does throughout the year.

“My recommendation is that you consider this, or some version of this, seriously, only because of this fact: You’re very right. I feel confident that if it’s on appeal that we would win, that you’re in a stronger legal position,” said Van Bruggen. “But the cost of defending that appeal to these landowners on the system, even when you win, is so expensive.”

Van Bruggen acknowledged that engineers, attorneys and drainage authority boards will need to address any new projects upstream of the Minnesota River basin. Commissioner Bob Kopitzke was not willing to gamble with the landowner’s money, and noted that the proposed field day would be purely optional for members of the public.

“I think we should turn it over to the Soil and Water,” said Kopitzke. “That’s the thing they do anyway. Have them come for coffee and rolls, if they want to take the information and use it. If they don’t, they’ll just farm the way they’ve been farming. I don’t know if I want to roll the dice for 10, 20, $30,000.”

In the end, wording was changed to remove the County as a sponsor of the Field Day, and a resolution passed by a split vote of 3-2 to let the Stevens Soil and Water Conservation District put the program together. The Board will find out this week if that was acceptable to the Izaak Walton League.

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