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Overhaul of State Ditch 83 Divides Northwestern Minnesota Residents
By Leif Enger
November 18, 1997
Click for audio RealAudio 2.0 14.4

Much of what we know as Minnesota's fertile farmland would still be swamp had it not been drained. A hundred years ago it was common practice to dig ditches and dredge rivers, and today those ditches and rivers keep the land arable. But conservationists say increasingly it's a practice out of sync with environmental biology; and a proposal for a major ditch overhaul in northwestern Minnesota has divided local residents.

SFX: Prairie wind.
THE RODAHL PLACE looks like most other flatland farms north of Thief River Falls: wide snowswept fields separated by banked roads and drainage ditches holding a few feet of rapidly freezing water. Darrold Rodahl himself is lean, about forty, with a face showing years of work in persistent winds.
Rodahl: We're looking at my barley field of about a hundred acres that drownded out, completely drownded out, the first few days of July. The water was unable to run out the 83 system because it's gone into such disrepair. It would not take the water from the field.
The problem, Rodahl says, is State Ditch 83, also called the Thief River: it's clogged with beaver dams, silt, and trees that've grown up on its banks and fallen in. It takes a long time for spring runoff to run off; and if the ditch is full and the fields are soaked; a day's hard rain can work ruin. So last summer Rodahl and 15 of his neighbors signed a petition asking the Red Lake Watershed District to re-dredge Ditch 83. Speed up the water. Rescue their farms.
Rodahl: Every drainage system needs repair sooner or later. If it doesn't happen, we stand to be flooded for more duration as the system continues to deteriorate. Our land will become less and less valuable to us. Without drainage, there is no value in it.
Drainage, farmers point out, is what turned this area from swamp to productive acreage in the first place. Starting in the late 1800s, massive ditching projects drained hundreds of thousands of acres. The ditches emptied into rivers, which carried runoff downstream. Sometimes the rivers themselves were dredged - deepened, their beds smoothed out - to carry more water.
SFX: Car door slams, walking through crusty snow.
So it was with this river - the Thief - for which the city of Thief River Falls is named. In 1910, thirteen miles of its banks were cleared of trees, its bottom scooped clean. It got a new classification, State Ditch 83. It became the center of a drainage system serving a thousand square flat miles. But as decades passed, the Thief began to regenerate. It remembered its old life. It formed sandbars, grew elms and cottonwoods and burr oaks along its banks - and it slowed down. Today, regional DNR hydrologist Nate Dalager doesn't see a ditch - but a river.

Dalager : I see the sun setting; falling snow, large mature trees on the riverbanks, flowing water, it's quiet and serene, and beautiful.
Dalager agrees the river, or ditch, doesn't move water as fast as it used to. But he says there are least two reasons to think hard before going ahead with the project. First, it could be dangerous for the flood-prone cities downstream - Thief River Falls, Red Lake Falls, and Crookston, and eventually communities on the Red River as well.
Dalager: When you know that you're increasing the capacity of the channel, and you know that downstream communities are prone to flooding and were extremely close to having their levies overtopped, it doesn't make a whole lot of sense to increase flows without at least examining the issue.
The DNR sent warning letters to the mayors of those cities - in the hopes, Dalager says, of starting a public debate on the project. Because this section of the Thief is officially a ditch, it doesn't have the same protection as other rivers. Jurisdiction belongs to the Red Lake Watershed District, which can repair ditches without an environmental assessment. The DNR believes the watershed district is putting the needs of sixteen farmers over the interests of thousands of downstream residents. Watershed administrator Lowell Enerson says the DNR's all revved up over nothing.
Dalager: I really think the young area hydrologist in Thief River jumped the gun. I mean, right now we have a petition to look at it. We're looking at it.
Enerson says there's no denying farmers need good drainage; nor that the ditch needs cleaning - though maybe not the full-blown, multi-million dollar dredge treatment the petition requests. As for the downstream communities, Enerson says the watershed is acting responsibly - an engineer will soon start surveying the ditch to see how much the flow would increase.

But the survey itself is the other snag in the project.

In the next few weeks, a logger hired by the watershed district will remove an eleven-mile strip of woods on one side of the ditch - for visibility and access to study the waterway. But those woods haven't been cut in 87 years. Deer browse there; mink and fox move up and down the shoreline; people hike and hunt and picnic. Several miles downstream from the Rodahl farm, landowner Loiall Dyrud says it's time to let the river be a river again - not a treeless ditch.

Dyrud: When our families moved here it was a river, a beautiful river, a small river. This is the remarkable thing: when the river was actually dredged, my mother said it took forty years for the trees to come up and cover that unsightly gash.
Dyrud and other landowners against the project say they weren't notified of any meetings to discuss the petition; that they only found out about it two weeks ago, when the logging contract had already been let.

At the Watershed District, administrator Enerson says he understands their feelings about the logging - but if it's a question of aesthetics versus function, there's no doubt where the law comes down.

Enerson: This is not a river. This is a ditch. And I think if you look at most ditches in the state of Minnesota, usually you don't see a lot of trees growing on the banks. If you buy a piece of property for the aesthetic of the river, you better be sure it's not a ditch, that it's a river. This is the problem, now, that people don't realize that.
The watershed district plans to go ahead with the logging and survey of Ditch 83, after which it will decide whether to dredge. Loiall Dyrud says he and other landowners will try to convince the district to not to cut along the waterway; and if they fail, will consider a legal challenge to stop the project.