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Sep 28, 2022

Press Release: Minnesota Supreme Court affirms Renville County’s last free flowing stream is a protected public water



Minnesota Supreme Court affirms Renville County’s last free flowing stream is a protected public water

Press Release: Sept. 28, 2022

Contact: Sarah Horner, MCEA, 612-868-3024, shorner@mncenter.org 

ST. PAUL, MINNESOTA -- The Minnesota Supreme Court delivered a win for public water Wednesday, cementing critical protections for the last remaining free-flowing stream in Renville County from a ditch proposal that could worsen conditions in the already impaired Minnesota River Valley. The opinion also underscores the need to continue to safeguard a core founding principle of our state: our waters belong to the public. 

The high court’s opinion affirmed an earlier Court of Appeals precedential decision, which found that the waterway at the center of this case - aptly named Limbo Creek - is a public water as defined by state statute and that any proposal to alter it thereby requires environmental review. It also underscores the limitations of Minnesota’s Public Waters Inventory (PWI), and highlights the importance of protecting from pollution the hundreds of miles of rivers and streams that meet the legal definition of “public waters” in state statute but are not currently listed on the PWI.  

The Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy (MCEA) represented itself and Protecting Public Waters, a group of local landowners, in this case. The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) submitted a “friend of the court” brief supporting MCEA’s position, and has also noticed its intent to add this section of Limbo Creek to the PWI.

Limbo Creek, a segment of which nearby landowners proposed to ditch and straighten, meets the legal definition of a public water. But due to errors and technical limitations that existed when the PWI was created in the 1980s, the creek ended up on the map but not the corresponding list of public waters. The dispute at the heart of the case is whether the drainage project requires environmental review required of any proposed alteration of a public water in Minnesota. Today’s ruling affirms that the Minnesota Court of Appeals rightly decided that in this case, Limbo Creek meets the statutory definition of “public water” and is protected, even if it is not currently listed on the PWI.

It also means the ditch proposal for Limbo Creek must undergo environmental review before determining whether the project can safely move forward. After the environmental impacts of the proposed ditch project are studied, all Minnesotans will have an opportunity to weigh in on the future of this important waterway.

“We all know that when pollution enters the water in one place the impacts of that pollution will be seen downstream, too. This is why our state made clear at its founding that our waters belong to the public, not individual landowners. Our right to have a say in what happens to them must be protected, and the state has the responsibility to ensure that it stays that way,"  said Jay Eidsness, staff attorney for MCEA. “We are pleased the Supreme Court recognized Limbo Creek’s status and declined to say that a water has to be listed on the Public Waters Inventory to be a public water. It also affirmed the importance of the Legislature's definition in statute in making that determination."

“This decision protecting Limbo Creek takes us one step closer to ensuring that permitted drainage projects must benefit all citizens, not just the agricultural industry. The age of uncontrolled pollution in the name of agriculture must end or our public waters will continue to degrade,” said Tom Kalahar, a retired conservationist who worked in Renville County for 35 years in the Soil and Water Conservation District. Kalahar is also a part of Protecting Public Waters, a co-litigant in this case.

“CURE values and understands the importance of local control in the decision-making process. Water is not confined to county boundaries and decisions upstream impact the communities downstream,” said Peg Furshong, director of programs at Clean Up the River Environment (CURE) and a Renville County resident who lives near Limbo Creek. “State oversight and the classification of public waters is critical. For counties downstream of “local control” water decisions, their financial burdens have grown in addition to the bill all Minnesotans pay to manage flooding and repairs. The ruling today reminds us that public waters are held in trust for the use and enjoyment of the public today and for future generations.”   

"Tragically, Minnesota has pervasive problems with flooding, poor water quality and loss of wetland habitat. Correcting these problems is an arduous effort. The Supreme Court decision demonstrates again how important it is to have accurate and adequate information before making decisions that impact our public waters. We once again urge that local units of government obtain adequate information on the impact of drainage projects on already impaired streams and rivers,” said David Minge, former congressman and retired Minnesota Court of Appeals judge. 

Questions about today’s decision can be directed to Sarah Horner via the contact information listed above. A copy of the decision can be provided upon request, as well as drone footage for B-roll and/or photos of Limbo Creek.


In contrast to the scores of straightened ditches that otherwise criss-cross Renville County designed to move water quickly off land and into rivers, eroding their banks, Limbo Creek meanders through the landscape. Its natural contours allow it to play a pivotal role in preventing additional erosion and pollution in the Minnesota River Valley. 

Worsening erosion exacerbated by ditching and tiling projects over the years has destroyed farmland, displaced homes and caused millions of dollars in damages throughout the region. The City of Mankato alone has incurred more than $10 million in costs to prevent a major city well from being swallowed by the eroding bank of the Minnesota River. While Limbo Creek is just one of the tributaries that feed the Minnesota River, the cumulative impact of hundreds of ditches funneling the water from hundreds of thousands of acres of tiled farmland has transformed the entire Minnesota River Valley. 

Despite its unique and pivotal role, landowners proposed to ditch and straighten over a mile of Limbo Creek to improve drainage on their land, and Renville County approved the project’s engineering plans without subjecting the proposal to environmental review. 

Working alongside farmers, adjacent landowners and local conservation groups, MCEA and Protecting Public Waters – a group of citizens concerned with protecting public watercourses – sued the county on the grounds that Limbo Creek meets the state’s definition of public waters, therefore entitling it to special protections under the law, including mandatory environmental review of any proposed project that would alter it.  

While not currently included on the state’s PWI, Minnesota’s definition of public water includes any natural or previously natural stream or creek that has a drainage area of two square miles or more. Since Limbo Creek meets that definition, MCEA argued it should be treated as a public water under the law. 

The Court of Appeals and the Minnesota Supreme Court agreed, confirming that the portion of Limbo Creek where ditching is proposed is a public water under statute, even though there is confusion about this stretch of creek in the public waters maps and PWI list.