Earlier this week, in a ruling watched closely by environmental groups, the Minnesota Court of Appeals declined to overturn a state agency’s decision to grant water permits for an irrigation project in the Pineland Sands region of central Minnesota.
The plaintiffs in the case had argued that the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) should have ordered an environmental review before signing off on three wells for Tim Nolte, a Sebeka farmer who bought land a few years ago from Fargo-based R.D. Offutt Co., which grows potatoes in the region and had once planned to expand its operations there.
The plaintiffs claimed that Nolte was planning to grow potatoes on about 300 acres of land on behalf of R.D. Offutt, a scheme Nolte has denied. Raising potatoes and other row crops in the region is harmful because the soil is delicate and the heavy irrigation that is required washes chemicals into the groundwater, they argue.
In its ruling, the appeals panel agreed with the DNR’s assessment that R.D. Offutt had abandoned its expansion plans and that Nolte was operating independently of the company. It also rejected arguments that the DNR, in its decision to grant the water permits, had failed to consider the potential for nitrate contamination and other environmental hazards.
So what happens now?
Another court challenge?
The lead plaintiff, the Environmental Working Group, said in a prepared statement that it was “profoundly disappointed in the court’s ruling” and was considering a petition to the state Supreme Court to hear the case.
That route, however, might be losing steam.
Jeffrey Broberg, a director of the Minnesota Well Owners Organization, another plaintiff in the case, said more court challenges felt like “a heavy lift.” Instead, he said, his group planned to promote routine screening by which homeowners would track any changes in the quality of their water. That just might put R.D. Offutt in the position of having to pay for water treatment facilities, he said. (Broberg is also a hydrologist whose work was noted in the court decision.)
Whatever follows “doesn’t change our plans,” Nolte told MinnPost a day after the ruling. “It’s all planted now. It’s actually very dry up here, so the irrigators have been running.” Nolte planted corn for his cattle this spring, along with some cover crops. “That said, I’m not going to say I’m never going to (grow potatoes),” he added.
Nolte said he was “just so disappointed in the whole deal from start to finish” and that the case made it difficult for him to get financing for his operation. “I did get a local banker to support me, but it was not easy to get that support,” he said.
And if the case goes to the state’s highest court? “It won’t bother us one bit,” Nolte said. “The damage is already done. We aren’t doing anything wrong, so we’re just going to ignore it.”
Not a new controversy
The controversy began about a decade ago when the lumber supplier Potlatch Corp. began selling its timberlands in the Pineland Sands region, which includes Wadena, Cass, Becker and Hubbard counties. Growing potatoes in the so-called “sandy soils” that are left behind after pine trees are chopped down requires a lot of irrigation, which can wash fertilizer and other chemicals into the groundwater.
When Nolte bought the land, he agreed to several conditions set forth by R.D. Offutt, such as agreeing to lease land back to the company, but he removed those stipulations in an amended contract. He also took some conservation measures, such as leaving trees standing between the land and the Redeye River, which he showed me when I visited his farm last summer. He also uses some of the land for pasture.
Broberg, meanwhile, said the appeals court’s ruling revealed the real problem in the case: the DNR, not the Noltes.
In its evaluation of the project, Broberg said, the agency relied on outdated hydrological reports while ignoring recent federal studies of nitrate levels in the region’s water. “The court’s deference to (the DNR) as experts – without regard to their taking into consideration all of the technical data that is available – is just abusive to me,” he said.
The DNR did not immediately return a phone call seeking comment.
Of Nolte’s position, Broberg said: “He only gets that attitude because the DNR keeps telling him it’s OK.” If the agency did its due diligence, he said, farmers might look at the situation differently.