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Cities, industries have reduced their Mississippi River pollution — now it’s farmers’ turn

Minnesota is the first test state for a new, voluntary program to limit farm runoff.

The amount of nutrients and sediment pouring into the Mississippi from agricultural operations has increased since the Clean Water Act was signed 40 years ago.

The Mississippi River is cleaner today than it was just 40 years ago. Not coincidentally, it was 40 years ago this year that the Clean Water Act was passed and signed into law. Everyone in the land became liable for his or her own pollution — everyone, except farmers.

The lion’s share of the work to clean up the Mississippi, and all rivers across the country, fell on industrial polluters and cities. Governments fined polluting industries, and cities spent millions in storm water and sewer facilities. The taxpayer, in one way or another, footed much of the bill.

So, while the Mississippi is cleaner today than before the Clean Water Act was passed, it is only cleaner because polluters have been punished, and municipalities stopped dumping raw sewage into the river. According to Whitney Clark, executive director of Friends of the Mississippi, the amount of nutrients and sediment pouring into the Mississippi from agricultural operations has increased.

The unregulated nutrient runoff from Minnesota farm fields flows downstream into the Gulf of Mexico. The nutrients cause a rapid bloom of algae-like life. The bacteria that consume it use oxygen from the water until it doesn’t have enough oxygen to sustain life. The scientific term is hypoxia. With no oxygen, and no sea life, a dead zone is created. Every school child knows of the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico. What may be less well understood is that Minnesota runoff may be responsible for as much as 15 percent of the cause.

First test state for new program

In an effort to get that under control, Gov. Mark Dayton, U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, and EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson signed an agreement to use Minnesota as the first test state for a new program to limit farm runoff.

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The Minnesota Ag Water Quality Certification Program is voluntary. Critics of the agreement say voluntary programs don’t work. They point out that farm sediments and fertilizer runoff continues to grow, despite efforts to reduce it.

A state law requires farmers near rivers and other out-flowing bodies of water to leave a natural buffer 50 feet wide between the planted field and the river’s edge. “It is largely unenforced,” says Whitney. “We are not even demanding producers to comply with this most basic law.” Whitney points out that a number of counties have taken the setback requirement seriously, but most have not.

With corn and soybean prices high, farmers are planting as much of their property as they can. Anyone who knows a farmer understands. There are good years and bad years, high prices and low prices. Farmers have learned that they have to make hay while the sun shines. Some farm organizations have taken seriously their responsibilities to the water, and have pushed for stronger programs to prevent runoff, and to ask for federal and state dollars to offset the costs of managing the problem and to make up for land removed from production.

Plowing under CRP acres

Corn and soybean prices have moved farmers to take land they had set aside in Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) acres and plow them under and plant crops. The CRP encouraged farmers to take some of their land out of production and leave natural areas to create habitat for plants, animals and birds. But, the sun is shining on the farmer, and so, too, is the spotlight.

A number of environmental organizations are not happy with the state-federal program because they say it has no teeth. They point out that cities along the rivers upstream of Lake Pepin are required to employ every measure to reduce runoff and treat their sewage, under penalty of law. Clark points out that those cities will spend upwards of $900 million to stay in compliance. Without serious regulation of agricultural runoff, they say, cities are being asked to bear all the burden of clean water.

I stopped by the Governor’s Mansion to speak with Gov. Dayton about the agreement. He told me that he listened closely to Paul Aasen, commissioner of the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA); Dave Frederickson, commissioner of the Department of Agriculture (MDA); and Tom Landwehr, commissioner of the Department of Natural Resources. Dayton understands this isn’t a perfect program, but added, “My father always told me to not let the perfect be the enemy of the good. We’ve got to start somewhere.”

Dayton says he understands that some regulations might be necessary if this program doesn’t work. He said, “Let’s start with what we can, right away. Let’s see what we can learn and how to improve it along the way.”

A carrot/stick approach

Dayton said the new program does have some teeth. “It is a carrot or stick approach,” he said. The carrot is allowing farmers to voluntarily achieve independently set best management practices with no regulation. The stick is what happens if farmers don’t develop practices to reduce farm runoff. Regulation. Farmers are promised that if they reach their goals and the standards are certified by a third party, they will be exempt from regulation. Those who don’t comply will likely be forced to do so by law.

But it will take five to 10 years to get the program to a point where it can be judged effective or a failure. Environmental groups monitoring water quality, and mindful of the majority of Minnesotans who voted to tax themselves an additional 3/8 of 1 percent to make Minnesota waters clean, say that if the voluntary program doesn’t work, the can has been kicked 10 years down the road, making clean up much harder.

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But, Thom Petersen, director of government relations for the Minnesota Farmers Union, says, “In the last 10 years farmers in Minnesota have been more and more active in making changes to their farming practices to improve water quality.”

Petersen says farmers are prudent. He says they know that conserving water for their fields, as well as fertilizers and pesticides, is not only beneficial to the environment, but says, “those things cost money.”

New technologies could help

“Farmers are employing new technologies and agricultural practices, like no-till, low-till systems designed to improve water quality runoff,” Petersen said. He added, “Farmers want to be at the table and partner in ensuring that our state water is clean, fresh and abundant for this generation and the next. Our livelihoods, everyone’s livelihood, depends on clean water. We know that.”

If the new farm bill passes into law, Minnesota farmers stand to get financial help in reaching the goals of the agreement. But, Petersen points out, a new administration in Washington could scuttle the plan.

It may seem odd that President Obama would offer Minnesota an environmental plan that exempts farmers from regulation. It seems less odd when one considers, in the next 10 months, how many political ads and news conferences will be staged in front of barns. Like clean water, it seems pretty clear.