When Gov. Tim Walz took office this year, his administration inherited long-standing and sometimes heated debates over balancing agriculture and its effects on water across the state.
Two of the most contentious of those political fights have been over potato farming in a forested region of central Minnesota known as the Pineland Sands, and fertilizer use in southeastern Minnesota, where porous karst topography dominates the landscape.
To address the controversies and gain a closer look at what the effect of that agriculture has been, Walz and his team of regulators want to launch a pair of environmental impact studies.
There’s just one problem with the plan. A bipartisan group of lawmakers, industry groups and environmental advocacy organizations — a trio not often on the same side of anything — have balked at the idea. Neither the DFL-led House or the Republican-controlled Senate have funded the studies in their respective budget plans, even though Rep. Rick Hansen, a South St. Paul DFLer who chairs the House’s Environment and Natural Resources Finance Division, acknowledged it was a “high priority” for the administration.
Amanda Babcock, the state policy organizer for the Land Stewardship Project, which opposes large feedlots in the karst region, said research in the area “would be studying what we already know is wrong while it’s getting worse.”
Growing potatoes, growing concerns
In the Pineland Sands area of the state, which includes Park Rapids and stretches across four counties in central Minnesota, the DNR asked for $1.85 million to conduct a three-year long study on the effect of agricultural expansion, including on water.
The region historically was covered by jack pine forest and was often logged by the timber industry. But potato farming and other crops have boomed recently thanks to sandy soils that are favorable when irrigated. At the center of that expansion has been R.D. Offutt Company, an enormous potato farming operation that supplies McDonald’s.
R.D. Offutt’s growth has sparked backlash, however, as the irrigation needed for the sandy soil put new pressure on the region’s aquifer and more fertilizer raised concerns of water contamination in the shallow aquifer. In August, R.D. Offutt scrapped an expansion plan near the Mississippi River headwaters after the DNR ordered an environmental study on the project.
Now, the DNR is calling for a new study of the region. A written proposal for the study cites a bump in new requests for groundwater use and noted high concern among locals of nitrate contamination from farming.
“The proposed study is critical to understanding the impact of land conversion and increased agricultural irrigation on water and other resources in the Pineland Sands Area,” DNR spokesman Chris Niskanen told MinnPost in an email. “This one-time research is necessary to inform permitting decisions that affect Minnesota communities in an environmentally sensitive area undergoing rapid change. Without this study DNR will have [to] evaluate the sufficiency of information available to evaluate each individual permit application.”
Niskanen said when there is not sufficient information, the agency would have few options: “requiring the applicant to provide additional information; requiring environmental review; or denial of permits.”
MPCA: ‘committed to trying to make sure it happens’
In December, before he left the MPCA, former Commissioner John Linc Stine announced that the agency would recommend the karst region environmental study after a separate study showed nitrate levels in private wells were too high in 19 of 24 townships in Fillmore County, where the agency had been reviewing a permit for a new 5,000-hog feedlot.
Community members spoke out against the proposal, calling for an environmental impact statement on the feedlot. Newburg Township Board of Supervisors passed a one-year moratorium on new large feedlots while the community debates a permanent cap on the size of any new livestock operations.
Stine denied the permit for the Catalpa swine farm and opted out of ordering an EIS for the feedlot. But that denial prompted the proposal for a broader study that wouldn’t put the cost on any single project.
Laura Bishop, the MPCA’s new commissioner, decided to support Stine’s choice. The agency requested $643,000 for an initial phase called “scoping,” which would include public discussions to decide what would be included in the study.
If the new budget doesn’t include the study, which seems most likely to happen at this point of the legislative session, the agency will have to look at alternative ways to fund it, said Dave Benke, director of the resource management and assistance division for the MPCA.
“All of the priorities that we put forth in our budget are really important,” Benke said. “This is one of the things that we think is needed and we’re committed to trying to make sure it happens.”
Split with Walz
Democrats in the House may be aligned with Gov. Tim Walz’s administration on many environmental issues, but they have split with Walz on studying the karst and Pineland Sands regions.
Hansen, the South St. Paul DFLer, said he believes the state already has enough information to protect water, particularly in southeastern Minnesota. “We as a state have spent a lot of time and money and research going back over 30 years looking at areas that are susceptible to groundwater contamination.”
Hansen said his budget focused on “problem solving,” specifically on issues for which “not acting has a consequence,” he said. That includes paying for research and other efforts to stem Chronic Wasting Disease, a fatal brain illness affecting deer, and Emerald Ash Borer, a tree-killing invasive beetle.
More than once during an interview, Hansen stressed he wants the administration to “carefully review” Minnesota’s existing groundwater laws and to use those standards to guide their permitting decisions. The MPCA under Gov. Mark Dayton drew criticism from some lawmakers and environmental advocacy groups for not doing enough to stop fertilizer pollution.
Not only have Hansen and some environmental organizations declined to support the environmental studies, they have notably pushed this year to reinstate the MPCA’s Citizens’ Board, an influential panel that made decisions on issues such as whether new farms must undergo environmental studies. The move would dilute the regulatory power of MPCA’s current leadership.
The board was eliminated by the Legislature in 2015 in the wake of a controversial order requiring an environmental impact statement for a sizeable new dairy operation.
In an April 10 letter sent to Hansen, Bishop, the MPCA commissioner, said the agency has been “willing to work with legislators on the benefits perceived to be lost” when the citizens’ board was repealed. Bishop noted the measure did not come with new money in the House budget plan, meaning the MPCA would have to find an extra $669,000 in their existing funds to pay for the board.
Hansen said he’s more open to accepting the Pineland Sands study, since change to the region has come so fast. He said he expects both issues to come up in a conference committee, where lawmakers will hammer out a final environmental budget before May 20.
GOP wants more information
Republicans have mostly refrained from attacking the idea of researching the Pineland Sands and karst regions. Sen. Bill Ingebrigtsen, R-Alexandria, said he doesn’t have a philosophical opposition to the studies and believes they “will get funded eventually.” But he qualified that, adding “these things, they don’t happen overnight.” Ingebrigtsen chairs the Senate Environment and Natural Resources Finance Committee.
Senate Republicans did more than omit cash for the studies, however. Their budget plan didn’t pledge new spending for much of anything and would cut $57 million from the state general fund for agencies like the MPCA and DNR.
Rep. Paul Anderson, a Starbuck Republican who sits on agricultural and environmental committees in the House, said studies could produce “actual science” to help guide conversations around water pollution and agriculture and tamp down bitter debates on the topic.
Anderson said he believes R.D. Offutt has done a good job of limiting fertilizer to reduce runoff while growing potatoes in the Pineland Sands area. “If these studies are done correctly and go by science and not neighborhood emotion, I think these studies are good because farmers want to do what’s right as well,” he said.
However, Rep. Dan Fabian, the top Republican on the House Environment and Natural Resources Finance Division, said he wants to know more about how and why the studies would be conducted, in part to better convince him they wouldn’t “result in some sort of a moratorium on any new projects.”
Missing an opportunity?
Many in the agriculture industry oppose specific environmental impact statements for new farms because they’re so expensive, and because the proposed business must shoulder the cost. “It’s a project killer,” said David Preisler, CEO of Minnesota Pork Producers Association.
That’s one reason the state opted to foot the bill for regional studies instead. But like others, industry representatives say there’s enough research done and rules in place already to make the more in-depth reviews unnecessary.
Lucas Sjostrom, executive director of the Minnesota Milk Producers Association, said recommendations from previous environmental studies still haven’t been implemented.
He and Preisler each pointed to the Groundwater Protection Rule, also called the nitrogen rule, set to take effect this year, which has the goal of reducing nitrate pollution by restricting the application of nitrogen fertilizer. They said it would be better to wait and see if that works before doing a new study on nitrate contamination.
MPCA is aware of criticism hurled its way on the subject of nitrate contamination. Much of it came up during a public meeting in March on the general environmental impact statement. It was held in Red Wing by the Environmental Quality Board, which has the final say over whether the study goes forward after an initial “scoping” phase. Among other comments, people said they want to see the agency act on the data it gathers, past and future.
“People don’t want studies without something happening after them,” Benke said. “They want to have concrete steps or some type of action that can be put in place to help resolve the problem.”
Even so, the agency holds to its decision that a deeper study of the karst region is necessary to address the ongoing issue. “When we requested the [general environmental impact statement], we knew there was a lot of research on nitrates that’s out there,” Benke said. “We knew there were also some gaps in that research. What we want to accomplish… is how do we fill in those gaps so they connect with policies and rules we already have in place.”
That would include incorporating the outcome of the nitrogen rule as it’s implemented. “If we were to wait on it, we might miss the opportunity to take some other steps that might help along with that rule.”