You don’t even notice them until you make it a mission to go find them. Then you can’t help see them everywhere you drive, big and small, well-reinforced or bordered by vegetation.
Hundreds of miles of ditches, weaving through Huntsville like the body’s circulatory system, are an unnoticed yet essential part of the city’s infrastructure. There are 250-plus ditches in the city of varying breadth, length and function.
As Joy McKee, Director of Landscape Management for the City of Huntsville, says, “All ditches are not created equal.”
They come with various labels and challenges.
They also come – most important for citizens to recognize — with shared responsibility. The city’s primary task is to keep the water flowing. The residents’ task is to perform whatever landscaping work they might choose.
Likely as not, the ditch in your world is yours. The vast majority of ditches in the city are on private property. They might be 50-50 shared with your neighbor, or maybe just one bank is on your side. It’s your responsibility for mowing and minor upkeep.
Even if it’s, say, a concrete ditch the city has built to alleviate draining problems, it’s yours as far as your property extends, and your choice on how it’s landscaped.
The city is not shirking responsibility. That’s merely common sense at play. But as noted by as Brian Walker, supervisor in the Landscape Management office, the City of Huntsville has often gone above and beyond in helping residents with maintenance.
Let’s take a narrow ditch that slices through English Village. Rows of fenced-in yards line both sides. When the city reinforced the ditch as a small concrete culvert, residents may have believed it had become city property and city responsibility.
However, members of Walker’s staff visited the neighborhood, going door-to-door to explain the situation. Walker then agreed to send a crew into the ditch area to eliminate growth and make it a simple enough task for residents to maintain afterward.
“We try to help everybody when we can,” Walker says.
As with much of City of Huntsville, the operation is a partnership. Maintaining the ditches is shared between Landscape Management, the Department of Public Works and Department of Engineering, each utilizing its skill-set for whatever unique challenge might be presented.
Public Works is called upon to repair ditches threatened by erosion. Because, as McKee puts it, “We don’t have the big-boy toys,” Public Works uses its machinery for major clean-up, like fallen trees or large debris that inhibit water flow. Landscape Management does clean-up work, whether through machinery or the careful use of what Walker calls “low-volatility chemicals.” As he says, “We want to encourage the good grasses to stay and the bad grasses to go.”
The largest ditches are owned by the Corps of Engineers. They’re called “blue-line ditches,” have more water and are most often considered creeks. The city’s role typically involves enlisting contractors to manage them and their larger tributaries, though it’s often difficult to wade through the permit process necessary with federally owned property.
The second group includes the ditches owned by the city. They are natural ditches or concrete culverts, and usually are bordered up to the creek banks by private property. The city maintains the concrete and makes sure there is not debris that obstructs water flow.
The last group includes the majority of ditches, the easements. They are ones that are totally on private property or maintained through a home-owners’ association. The city’s concern with them is the efficient flow of water, and it will take steps to correct that if a problem occurs.
“We do limited amount of maintenance,” McKee says. “All we’re required to do is make sure the water flows. Just because there is vegetation doesn’t mean water isn’t flowing.”
Walker reminds residents that the best avenue to address problems with ditches is through Huntsville Connect, the City’s service request app that filters residents’ concerns and funnels them to the proper departments.