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Controlling water through the years: Drainage system benefits evolve

Discussions of drainage systems are regularly associated with high water levels and flooding - but that wasn't always the case.

The ditch system in Otter Tail County was created in the early 1900s to rid farmlands of soggy conditions.

Ditches have evolved into a system that now regulates flow between lakes. They serve as outlets for lakes, which gives water a place to go when levels rise too high.

"They weren't created to control lake levels, but that's what they've become," said County Land and Resource Management Director Bill Kalar.

With the number of small farms declining and lake homes increasing, more people are concerned about lake levels.

While the conversation on Ditch 25 is now associated with a lake drainage system, chances are the creators of that ditch would not have expected that to be the case.

The Lakes Improvement District (LID) of Little McDonald, Kerbs and Pauls lakes is seeking inclusion to Ditch 25 in an attempt to drain water and alleviate flooding.

Ditch 25 was built in 1907 and is one of 54 ditches in Otter Tail County. The ditch itself is located on county land, but is not a county initiative. Originally, properties that benefited from the ditches were assessed for expenses.

"Otter Tail County owns no county ditches," Kalar said. "They are privately owned by benefited property owners."

The problem now is benefited parties have changed - but that's an issue that's not being touched right now.

While the county does not own the ditches, the county's involvement is mandated under Minnesota drainage law, which grants counties the general authority to make decisions regarding any changes to ditch systems.

Considering the state's drainage law was created in 1887, interpretation of its meanings varies from case to case.

In the county's most recent handling of ditch situations, commissioners heard from those who were for and oppose to the inclusion of three extra lakes to the Ditch 25.

The county's decision now rests on whether the three lakes can be added to the ditch system without causing further flooding damage to lakes downstream.

While the county is making the decision, it will be the responsibility of benefited landowners - owners of LID lake property - who will pay for the addition. Taxes can be assessed based on a LID vote, not on a county referendum.