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Hearing is Wednesday on DNR ditch assessments

An administrative hearing is scheduled at 8:30 a.m. today in the Crying Wolf Room at Bemidji State University that relates to a long-standing dispute between Minnesota counties and the Department of Natural Resources.

The hearing will pertain to a proposed rule that would clarify the DNR's obligation on payments for ditch assessments. Counties and the DNR have been sparring over ditch assessments, because the DNR has not paid its share of some ditch assessments.

According to letters from the corresponding counties, the state has not paid more than $379,000 to Marshall County nor more than $464,000 to Roseau County. The state, reportedly, owes Beltrami County $2 million.

The proposed rule will determine the criteria and procedures for determining drainage benefits to state-owned land in Consolidated Conservation areas. Minnesota counties with Con-Con areas include Aitkin, Beltrami, Koochiching, Lake of the Woods, Mahnomen, Marshall and Roseau.

Hearings have been held or are planned in Aitkin, Bemidji, Grygla and Warroad.

The proposed rule states:

-- After receiving notification of improvements, the commissioner of the DNR will complete an investigation to determine whether the proposed drainage project benefits state-owned land. The investigation will be complete within 60 days after the commissioner has received all notification.

-- The commissioner, during investigation, will determine the positive and negative impacts of improvements to state-owned land, and then determine the net benefits, if any.

-- The DNR commissioner may use any one of the following as proof of a positive impact:

- The DNR uses the drainage system to outlet water into a public ditch from agricultural cropland that it manages.

- The DNR leases the land for commercial purposes such as agriculture, agro-forestry, aquaculture, wild rice paddles, peat mining or mineral extraction. The lessee also must utilize the drainage system into a public ditch from the leased land.

--- The DNR petitions for a drainage project.

- The DNR outlets water from state-owned land into a public ditch.

- Access to the state-owned land by the public is maintained or improved by the project.

- Timber production is maintained or improved by the project.

- Upland game habitat is maintained or improved by the project.

- The project benefits in any way other state-owned or federal projects outside of the benefited area of the project.

- Waterfowl game habitat is maintained or improved by the project.

- The project increases management options for state-owned land.

- Drainage of state-owned land positively impacts other lands located in the benefited areas or other affected lands.

-- The DNR commissioner may use any one of the following as proof of a negative impact:

- The project degrades public waters, public waters wetlands or wetlands on state-owned land.

- The project causes physical disturbance to rare species or significant natural communities through project activities such as ditching and depositing soil.

- The project causes an alteration of the hydrology that disturbs rare species, natural commodities or peatland features.

- The project causes an alteration of the hydrology that degrades designated peatland scientific and natural areas.

- The project restricts management options for state-owned land.

- The project results in the reduction or elimination of access to state-owned land.

-- The DNR commissioner will determine, parcel by parcel, if the project benefits state-owned land. If it does, the DNR will participate in the project and determine the amount the DNR should contribute. The commissioner may also set conditions to modify the project before approving or joining a project.

-- If a repair project is proposed that is less than $20,000 and the commissioner has previously determined the benefits of state-owned land in the system, the commissioner will authorize the assessments without investigation.

-- Following the investigation, the commissioner will submit his or her findings within 60 days of notification. This will state whether the project will or will not benefit state-owned land and set forth any conditions the commissioner attaches to the project. It will also state the amount of contribution, if any, that the DNR will pay toward the project.