fbpx Press Release: Approval of pump and lift project ends threat to Limbo Creek | Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy
Mar 26, 2024

Press Release: Approval of pump and lift project ends threat to Limbo Creek

Final resolution protects public waters while addressing water management needs of farmers 


March 27, 2024
Contact: Aaron Klemz, MCEA, aklemz@mncenter.org, 763-788-0282

SAINT PAUL, MINNESOTA – After years of disputes over whether Limbo Creek, Renville County’s last free-flowing stream, is a public water, the Renville County Drainage Authority today approved a repair pump proposal that will meet the needs of farmers who utilize County Ditch 77 (CD77) while protecting the watercourse. The plan approved today honors the property interests of upstream farmers, protects public safety by preventing road flooding, and avoids the environmental damage the original proposal to ditch and straighten Limbo Creek would have caused.  

This plan comes after a 2022 Minnesota Supreme Court decision in favor of Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy (MCEA) and Protecting Public Waters (PPW), a group of local residents. The Supreme Court ruling found the upper reach of Limbo Creek was a public watercourse, and that the ditching proposal required a public waters works permit and an environmental assessment. After the decision, upstream landowners proposed the pump and lift repair that was approved today. This repair restores CD77 to its legal condition while avoiding further damage to Limbo Creek. 

Local residents and Minnesota River advocates were enthusiastic about this outcome: 

“Public water in Minnesota belongs to all of us, it needs to be treated as if it were our gold,” stated Scott Sparlin, Executive Director of the Coalition for a Clean Minnesota River. “The resolution that has been reached in the Limbo Creek case magnifies why the statutory definition of a public water is the most scientific, simplistic, commonsense way to guide future management of water in our state.”

"The Limbo Creek decision is important because it elevates awareness that decisions we make locally about water have impacts in other parts of the state,” said Peg Furshong, member of PPW and Renville County resident. “The State of Minnesota is charged with holding Minnesota's water interests in trust for future generations. We look to the Limbo Creek decision being applied to all qualified waterways that meet the statutory definition to protect Minnesota public waters."

“After three decades, hundreds of thousands of dollars in litigation and engineering costs, and countless hours of local, state, and federal agencies' time, the final resolution of the Limbo Creek matter adopted today was suggested and encouraged by regulators near the very beginning of the project,” added Tom Kalahar, member of PPW and retired conservationist.  

“For the last 45 years, the fate of Limbo Creek in Renville County has been in limbo,” said Jim Sehl, retired hydrologist who worked for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. “The resolution of this conflict shows that people can come together to protect our natural resources while improving agricultural land production."

While the 2022 Minnesota Supreme Court decision affirmed that Limbo Creek is a public water because it meets the definition in Minnesota statute, the Court also asked the Minnesota Legislature to clarify the relationship between the definition of public waters in statute and the Public Waters Inventory (PWI). Limbo Creek was omitted from the PWI list when it was made in the early 1980’s, which created confusion about its legal status. Rep. Kirsti Pursell (DFL-Northfield) and Sen. Mary Kunesh (DFL-New Brighton) introduced legislation (HF 3385/SF 3558) to clarify that the statutory definition of public waters controls, even if a waterway is not listed on the PWI. This legislation was heard in committees in February, and was held over for possible inclusion in an omnibus bill. 

“Now that the Limbo Creek matter has been resolved, it’s time for the Legislature to act so that we can avoid similar situations in the future,” concluded Carly Griffith, Water Program Director at MCEA. “We’re thrilled a resolution was reached that protects water quality while meeting the drainage needs of upstream farms. We hope that clarity from the Legislature can help avoid future disputes.”

Another connected case in which Renville County challenged the authority of the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) to add watercourses to the PWI was dismissed in 2023. The DNR’s notice of intent to add Limbo Creek to the PWI was published in 2019, but no final action has been taken. 

History of the Case

In 2016, a proposal by landowners threatened to convert the last free-flowing stream in Renville County into a straightened ditch that would have increased the velocity and amount of water that flowed into the Minnesota River. This proposal would have cleared and straightened thousands of feet of Limbo Creek to allow increased water flow from the upstream CD77 ditch system. 

In March 2019, MCEA petitioned DNR to include the upper reach of Limbo Creek as a public water on the Public Waters Inventory list and map. MCEA and PPW, a group of local residents, also filed a petition for environmental review of the proposal. In June 2019, the DNR requested that the county "not make any Order to Repair or construct the CD77 outlet extension into waters covered by the petition" while it evaluated the MCEA petition. A citizen petition for environmental review of the ditching proposal was denied by the Renville County board, acting as the drainage authority, on the grounds that the upper reach of Limbo Creek was not a public watercourse. MCEA and PPW appealed.

MCEA and PPW’s appeal of the County’s decision to deny the need for an environmental assessment went all the way to the Minnesota Supreme Court. In August 2022, the Supreme Court found in MCEA and PPW’s favor, stating that Limbo Creek was a public water, and therefore required environmental review of the ditch proposal and a public waters works permit from the DNR. 

After this, the engineers hired by upstream landowners proposed a plan to use a pump and lift station to prevent water from flooding upstream fields, while keeping the flow of CD77 to the same historic levels. The drainage authority is also seeking a public waters work permit to clear 300 feet of sediment at the 820th Avenue road crossing.