A lowly ditch that runs through Rice and Steele counties is provoking significant controversy at the local government level, with one local farmer warning that a fix is needed soon to avoid severe damages to area properties.

Starting in Steele County, Joint Ditch 6 enters Rice County through Warsaw Township and bends east into Walcott Township before joining up with the Straight River. On the county board, Warsaw is represented by Jeff Docken, while Walcott is represented by Jake Gillen.

While most Rice County ditches are overseen by the Board of Commissioners, Joint Ditch 6 is unusual because it travels through more than one county. Therefore, a Joint Ditch Committee was established to oversee the maintenance of this specific ditch.

Gillen and Docken, who together represent all but one rural township in Rice County, sit along with Commissioners from Steele County on the committee. It meets on an as-needed basis, and hasn’t held any meetings as of late.

At Aug. 4 Board of Commissioners meeting, Brian Gillen expressed significant concerns about the state of the culvert. Brian Gillen, the son of Commissioner Gillen, is a local farmer who farms land near to the ditch. In his address to the board, Brian Gillen made it clear that he fears a catastrophic accident could occur if the ditch is not repaired. He even claimed it could cause significant damage to area properties and potentially even loss of life.

“When this thing blows it’s going to be like throwing a case of dynamite at the King Mill Dam,” he told commissioners.

While Brian Gillen declined to expand further on those comments or provide clear evidence supporting those specific fears, citing fear of a potential lawsuit. However, his father has championed the cause on the county board for several years.

Jake Gillen said that about five years ago, the ditch was cleaned and the quality of the culverts crossing it had been found to have deteriorated. Shortly after, he believed he had secured funding to fix up the culvert, but the arrangement fell through. In the roughly six decades since the ditch was built and crossings were installed, Jake Gillen said that maintenance was minimal. In the meantime, tractors have become larger and many culverts are historically undersized in their ability to accommodate heavy rainfall events, which have become more frequent.

Jake Gillen said that the county isn’t keeping up on its mandate to provide a crossing for area farmers. Gillen said that of the three crossings is causing the most consternation, two were initially put in by the ditch authority and should be repaired by it.

Docken said it’s possible that the ditch authority may need to repair some of its older ditches. Should such repairs be deemed necessary, a special assessment would be borne by those in the ditch watershed, not all county taxpayers.

However, Docken noted that some of the crossings causing the most consternation are actually the responsibility of the individual landowner. As a result, it’s possible that the ditch authority may only be able to provide limited help.

Jim Purfeerst, a member of the Rice Soil and Water Conservation District, said that the topic was discussed by the SWCD several years ago but not recently. At that time, the SWCD also concluded that the most troublesome crossings were private.

Given Brian Gillen’s concerns, Rice County Soil and Water Board Director Steve Pahs promised to revisit the issue. Pahs said that in the coming weeks he will go out with his colleagues from Steele County to inspect the ditch and see if repairs need to be made.

At that point, a meeting of the ditch authority could be called to determine the future of the culverts. Docken and Pahs both pledged to work on this issue and provide as much assistance to area landowners as possible.

“Once we’ve got a more in-depth assessment, we’ll see what we have to do,” Docken said.

Reach Reporter Andrew Deziel at 507-333-3129 or follow him on Twitter @FDNandrew. © Copyright 2020 APG Media of Southern Minnesota. All rights reserved.

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