Minnesota Supreme Court ruling gives more protection to Renville County stream

The case highlights concern over the environmental impacts of drain tiles and ditches used to drain excess water off farm fields.

A ditch outlet with water covered in green algae.
This is the County Ditch 77 outlet into Limbo Creek, in Minnesota's Renville County. The Minnesota Supreme Court has ruled that the creek warrants greater environmental protection. 
Tom Cherveny | West Central Tribune

The Minnesota Supreme Court has ruled that a stream in Renville County warrants greater environmental protection. 

The case centers on proposed improvements to a ditch that empties into the upper reaches of Limbo Creek, the last free-flowing stream in heavily farmed Renville County.

The county board did not require an environmental review of the project, because the creek wasn't on a decades-old state inventory of public waters.

But the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources and environmental groups argued the creek meets the legal definition of a public water — a status that would require an environmental review for the ditch project. The Minnesota Court of Appeals agreed, and the state Supreme Court upheld that opinion in a decision issued on Wednesday.

However, the court said the ruling only applies to the Renville County case, not necessarily to other waterways.

Kevin Reuther, an attorney with the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy, called the decision “a good win for water quality in Minnesota.”

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“Public water is defined by statute, and there's no question that Limbo Creek meets that definition,” he said.

Case is about environmental impacts of drain tiles

The case highlights concern over the environmental impacts of drain tiles and ditches used to drain excess water off farm fields.

Reuther said drainage is important for crop farming, but it also can have major consequences on water quality, including increased erosion and nutrient pollution. 

“Just being able to study it before you make the decision to go ahead is really important, because we can make those projects better,” Reuther said. “We can reverse or eliminate some of the impacts that would otherwise happen."

Limbo Creek eventually empties into the Minnesota River, which is already impaired due to sediment and pollution.

Attorney for county says decision causes confusion about which streams are public

In an email, Gerald Von Korff, an attorney for the Renville County Board, wrote that in recent years, rotting vegetation has accumulated below the outlet of the drainage system, causing flooding on upstream farms. 

He said the county consulted with state and local agencies, which all said the creek was not a public water. It received permission to complete the project and spent significant money to prepare the plans.

Von Korff said the Supreme Court’s decision causes uncertainty over which Minnesota streams are public. Local officials have long relied on the public waters inventory, he said.

Reuther said the inventory was created decades ago, before today’s sophisticated tools such as satellite imagery were available. He said any confusion could be avoided by following the legal definition of a public water.