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Tax Ditch Programs

What is a Tax Ditch?

A tax ditch is a governmental subdivision of the State.  It is a watershed based organization formed by a prescribed legal process in superior Court.  The organization is comprised of all landowners (also referred to as taxables) of a particular watershed or sub-watershed.  The operations of a tax ditch are overseen by ditch managers and a secretary/treasurer.  These officers are landowners within the watershed and are elected at an annual meeting by the taxables.

Delaware has 228 individual tax ditch organizations.  They range in size from the 56,000 acre Marshyhope Creek Tax Ditch in southern Delaware to a two-acre system in Wilmington.  These organizations manage over 2,000 miles of channels and provide benefits to over 100,000 people and almost one-half of the state-maintained roads.  Tax ditch channels range in size from 6 to 80 feet wide and 2 to 14 feet deep.  The dimensions depend upon the acreage being drained and topography.

Formation of a Tax Ditch

The Delaware General Assembly enacted the 1951 Drainage Law to establish, finance and maintain drainage organizations (tax ditches).  Formation of a tax ditch can only be initiated by landowners who petition Superior Court to resolve drainage or flooding concerns.

This petition results in the Conservation District requesting an investigation by the Division of Soil and Water Conservation to "...determine whether the formation of the tax ditch is practicable and feasible, an is in the interest of the public health, safety and welfare."  If so determined, the Conservation District files the petition in Superior Court and the Board of Ditch Commissioners (as directed by the resident judge) prepares a report on the proposed tax ditch.

This report contains information such as drainage ditch locations, needed rights-of-way, associated costs, and is the basis for a hearing that is held for affected landowners.  At the conclusion of the hearing, a referendum is held for the landowners to approve or disapprove formation of the tax ditch.  The Board of Ditch Commissioners files the result of the hearing and referendum in Superior Court.  The Court then holds a final hearing or any interest person to object to the formation of the tax ditch.

Following the outcome of the final hearing, and if deemed appropriate, the Superior Court judge issues a Court Order establishing the tax ditch organization.  The Court Order establishes permanent rights-of-way for the tax ditch organization for construction and maintenance operation.  It also empowers the organization landowners, funds to perform this construction and maintenance.  The taxation amount for individual properties is also established through the Court Order. 

Tax Ditch Maintenance

Vegetative maintenance on tax ditches is performed to allow access to channels for the removal of accumulated sediment, commonly referred to as "dip outs."  Dipping out a channel is done using a hydraulic excavator that removes approximately one to two feet of material from the channel bottom.  This allows the channel to remain fully functional and provide the level of drainage intended by its original design.  Dip outs generally occur once every 15 to 20 years.

Vegetative maintenance traditionally involves the use of rotary mowing machines to control trees and large shrubs  Failure to perform this maintenance will result in the growth of large trees and prohibit access to the channel for dip-out purposes.  Unfortunately, mowing machines are not selective and cut all vegetation including shrubs and grasses that provide desirable food and habitat for wildlife.  Recent attempts have focused on the development o viable alternative methods for controlling vegetation.  One successful method is the "weed wiper bar."  This machine applies herbicides on targeted species by using a wiper bar that leaves most desirable species untouched.

An experimental maintenance practice to promote increased wildlife habitat involves the establishment of tree clusters along the edge of the ditch.  This practice yields numerous environmental benefits as it increases tree canopy, reduces forest fragmentation, provides shade thereby lowering water temperature, and increases the dissolved oxygen in the water.

For more information about Tax Ditch services, contact Gene Vanderwende at (302) 741-2600 ext 3.

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