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Why Ditches Matter

Field Guide for Maintaining Rural Roadside Ditches

Bet you haven't thought about ditches today. That's right ... ditches.

Ditches are an important part of our society even though they often are overlooked. If you live beyond city limits, these conduits usher water away from roads (reducing flooding and road maintenance) and connect you and your home to waterways and lakes. A common misconception is that ditches and the stormwater runoff that goes into them are your city's, township's or county's problem, not yours. The truth is, in some ways, we are all responsible for making sure the systems we rely on such as the ditches that run along roadsides are dependable and compatible with our expectations for clean water and reasonable taxes.

Though ditches are not necessarily great for the environment, they don't need to be horribly damaging if they're designed and maintained correctly. Think of building ditches like building a house. We need them, and they can be built well; or they can be constructed shabbily. Both need maintenance, but it will take more effort to keep the shabby money pit standing and will likely be worse for the environment.

As a homeowner, business owner, or citizen, there are things you can do to help out with ditches. Keep an eye on them. Are they clean and clear? After a moderate rainstorm, are they backed up, or is standing water attracting a healthy mosquito population? Report ditch problems to a local government official.

Keep the ditches around your property flowing. Grass-lined ditches filter and absorb pollutants, but that doesn't mean they are the place for debris or yard clippings. You can trim vegetation in the ditch, but try to leave at least 10 inches standing. This helps the plants to survive and assist in slowing runoff.

While a citizen's role is important, cities and municipalities also need to keep an eye on rural ditches. That is why the University of Minnesota Duluth's Natural Resources Research Institute and Minnesota Sea Grant recently published a field guide that provides ditch maintenance tips for rural communities. The guide was funded through the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative and the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency. It offers best practices about reducing sediment and pollution buildup in waterways while preventing erosion and maintaining the flow of water. Roadside ditches in the Arrowhead are especially susceptible to erosion and sediment buildup because many of its roads are unpaved: 51% of the roads maintained by St. Louis County and 58% of those maintained by Carlton County.

Jesse Schomberg, Program Leader at Minnesota Sea Grant and co-manager on the project, said, "We created the field guide with township managers, county road crews and contractors in mind. The main thing I learned through this process was that a properly designed ditch takes skill and careful engineering; and even small changes, like a bigger culvert, or different culvert material, can lead to significant problems."

Making a roadside ditch isn't a "do-it-yourself" project. Neither is properly maintaining one. If the slopes, culverts, and drops aren't well thought out, a cascade of trouble can follow.

Though the field guide is for road crews, you might find some ideas for managing water more effectively by browsing the contents. They are available online at www.seagrant.umn.edu/publications/SH14. Physical copies can also be attained for free by calling 218-726-8106.

Whether you are a homeowner, business owner, or municipal leader, think about ditches now and then. Keep them clean and support their ability to function well.

By Russell Habermann
December 2014

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