Flood control project lawsuit settled

project map
A levee nearly three miles long will hold spring runoff and provide enhanced waterfowl habitat in the Agassiz Vally area in northwestern Minnesota. The project has been in dispute for years.
Courtesy SMT Watershed District

Projects like this one are often seen as an important part of reducing flood damage in the Red River Valley.

The idea is to build a dam about three miles long where water naturally collects in the spring, and hold that water until spring flooding subsides.

project site
Much of the land for the flood control project is currently in the Conservation Reserve Program.
MPR Photo/Dan Gunderson

The project's been in the works for about 20 years. But landowners near the site went to court four years ago, challenging the authority of the local watershed board to take their land through eminent domain.

"The old statement is, 'Whiskey's for drinking and water's for fighting,' Nick Drees, administrator of the Middle, Snake, Tamarac Watershed District. "There's no question, you go back to the old cowboys and Indians days in the westerns and water was always an issue. It hasn't changed."

The watershed board has authority to approve flood control projects, but landowners say in this case, the board ignored their concerns and questions about the project. Nick Drees won't talk about specifics of the dispute. He says the legal agreement limits what he can say.

The lawsuit challenged the watershed board's right to take the land. It became a power struggle, with landowners accusing the board of violating state data practices law. The state ordered the board to release documents. Landowners also allege the board violated open meeting laws by not properly publicizing meetings.

Watershed Board Administrator Nick Drees says landowners secretly recorded conversations in his office. Personal insults were flung in both directions.

The Audubon wildlife sanctuary lost land to the flood control project, but may help manage the site for wildlife.
MPR Photo/Dan Gunderson

Drees says he wonders if the lawsuit was mostly about money.

One of the landowners involved, Jim Stengrim, disagrees. A dusty gravel road separates Stengrim's home from the project site, and he owned some of the land where it will be constructed. Stengrim says the lawsuit was as much about respect as money.

"When you're only talking about money, you just put up the right kind of money and everything gets satisfied. But how do you ever get over the violations of data practices, open meeting laws? Money I don't think is the answer there," says Stengrim.

Stengrim says the violation of data practices became a more important issue to him than the original flood control project. He challenged the board several times, and won the right to review boxes of documents.

You need a scorecard to track the disputes that erupted as this case worked its way through the legal process, but it comes down to whether a big flood retention pond can be built on the Polk County-Marshall County line to ease spring flooding and attract wildlife.

Maybe everybody should look at what happened here and make sure it doesn't happen someplace else, because projects like this are important.

After several months of court-ordered mediation, an agreement was reached to pay the landowners $1.7 million, which both sides consider a fair price. Landowners will also be able to continue getting payments from the federal Conservation Reserve Program as long as the land stays in the CRP program.

That part of the agreement was critical for Pam Wockenfuss. She manages the Wetlands, Pines and Prairie Audubon Wildlife Sanctuary across the road from the flood control project, and some of the land in the project belonged to the sanctuary. She says the nonprofit organization depends on federal CRP payments to operate the sanctuary.

Wockenfuss says the project has been a series of misunderstandings and personality conflicts.

"By the time it got to the point where it should have been corrected, it was such a mess that nobody knew how to correct it. So maybe everybody should look at what happened here and make sure it doesn't happen someplace else, because projects like this are important," says Wockenfuss.

The Minnesota DNR is trying to learn from this nearly derailed project. DNR Red River Basin Coordinator Don Buckhout says after years of gridlock over flood projects, local, state and federal agencies have been cooperating in recent years, after a mediated agreement set up a process for better cooperation.

"And when an Agassiz Valley project comes along where things sort of get off the tracks, that's discouraging for everybody. We certainly want to learn from that process. If there's a way to avoid those situations in the future we'd like to avoid them, because it's not good for anybody," says Buckhout.

Middle, Snake, Tamarac Watershed District Administrator Nick Drees is confident the hard feelings and personal slights will soon be forgotten.

"In fact I would say five, six years after the project is done, a lot of this stuff will be totally forgotten that there was even a disagreement and say, 'Boy, doesn't that work well.' I would hope that to be the case," says Drees.

Construction of the $6 million Agassiz Valley flood control project is expected to start next spring.

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