Should voluntary water regulations for farmers be made mandatory?

— Dave Peters, editor, Beneath the Surface, Minnesota’s Pending Ground Water Challenge

An irrigation boom waits for summer on a central Minnesota farm. (Dan Haugen for MPR News.)

You can’t talk about water use in Minnesota for long before you get around to talking about farming.

That’s clear from two recent stories by MPR News.

One, by MPR News reporter Dan Gunderson, showed how increased irrigation and leaching of nitrates from fertilizers are forcing the city of Park Rapids to spend more to get good water for residents. The city has been forced to drill a deeper well to get away from the contamination, and the treatment required for that water is driving a typical family’s water bill up $130 a year, Gunderson reported.

The other, by freelance reporter Dan Haugen, showed how irrigation wells in western Stearns County and eastern Pope County are drawing down water tables, at least seasonally. Irrigation pumping in the area known as the Bonanza Valley has grown much faster than in the rest of the state, and state Department of Natural Resources officials worry that’s not sustainable.

A key point in the debate swirling around good farming practices that might reduce the amount of fertilizer reaching groundwater or local lakes and rivers is whether those practices can be something other than voluntary.

Farmers are constantly evaluating their practices in an effort to minimize impacts on water quality while still providing the basic crops that make modern life better, doing whatever they can to keep the overall global footprint of your food supply as low as practically possible. — Warren Formo, executive director, Minnesota Agricultural Water Resource Center

Farmers have made significant adjustments over the last 20 years that have reduced the risk of pesticides and fertilizers moving into ground and surface waters. This has been helped along by federal and state regulations.

Farmers are already required to follow federal requirements and label restrictions when applying pesticides. At the state level, the Minnesota Department of Agriculture has an extensive monitoring program looking for pesticides and develops voluntary best management practices. If levels worsen, the MDA has authority to impose further restrictions. These steps are outlined in our Pesticide Management Plan.

The Nitrogen Fertilizer Management Plan, which was released for comment in 2013 and is currently undergoing revisions, also sets up monitoring and development of management practices for nitrogen fertilizer to protect Minnesota’s ground and surface water.

As far as a tax is concerned, farmers and all pesticide and fertilizers users already pay fees to the state to support regulatory, remediation, and technical and research programs. These funds also support research to enhance efficiencies and nitrogen optimization. A “special tax” would be difficult and expensive to enforce, and at the end of the day does little to enhance Minnesota’s waters. — Dave Frederickson, commissioner, Department of Agriculture

Today’s Question: Should voluntary water regulations for farmers be made mandatory?

  • Jim G
  • Mr. I work with water daily

    “Farmers are constantly evaluating their practices in an effort to minimize impacts on water quality while still providing the basic crops that make modern life better, doing whatever they can to keep the overall global footprint of your food supply as low as practically possible”.
    Mr. Formo says this sort of thing all of the time. What he misses is that a small, select group of farmers are evaluating their impact on water quality, while most are evaluating what the impact on their wallet is. Dollars are first and foremost in the eyes of most farmers. Until commodity prices can come down from elevated levels, this will continue to be their primary concern. I deal with water quality improvement and land use impacts for my job. The biggest impact I see is not from urban or suburban development, wastewater, or others, it’s from agriculture. And without creating regulations, it’s very likely nothing will change without paying 100% of the cost for farmers to actually stick true conservation practices in the ground or make changes in their operations that will make a difference. I grew up farming, so I know the challenges they face daily, and I agree, it’s not always easy. They are an independent group who doesn’t wish to make changes to their operation, unless it makes sense financially or saves them time. I personally have no problem with the idea of creating or tightening regulations on the ag community. First, it makes them more accountable for the impacts they have the potential to create. Secondly, they have very few tangible regulations to follow the way it is. Third, they forget that resources are shared, not just one individuals. When their impact affects many, then they need to be made aware of WHY their practices have impacts beyond their field edge.

  • “Should voluntary water regulations for farmers be made mandatory?”

    Yes. See Mr. I work with water daily’s post.

    Another thing to look at is how much water/fertilizer golf courses use. Do we REALLY need so many courses throughout the state??

  • Joe Musich

    Considering the devastation already done to the environment, absolutely! The entire regime of chemical use needs to be reevaluated independently of ag chemical ! Hear the cry of the Monarch ! It is not about paying your way out of the mess using taxes but maybe paying taxes to even use the chemicals. It is said that we have the best agricultural production in the world but does that make us the smartest ? Furthermore, if down the road the land is totally poisoned between Indiana and California who will say then we are the best agriculturalists in the world ?

  • AndyBriebart

    Stop subsidizing ethanol

  • Guest

    Maybe stop subsidizing at chemicals. Not. Only corn provides ethenol . what about that new plant opening in Emmetsburg Iowa ?

    http://www.mprnews.org/story/2013/12/16/new-plants-to-make-ethanol-from-biomass

  • Joe Musich

    Big chemicals ag chemicals need more regulation. Ethanol as a concept needs time ! The monarch is being killed by chemicals not ethanol directly. How about new plant opening in emmetsburg Iowa ! Here :

    http://www.mprnews.org/story/2013/12/16/new-plants-to-make-ethanol-from-biomass

    • Gaia Peregrine

      Ethanol is a huge reason that farmers started plowing and planting on previously abandoned fields. Ethanol isn’t a good source of fuel and it never has been. It’s a monocrop. Ecological studies have shown that biologically diverse herbaceous fields create a better source of biofuel than monocrops. This has also caused an increase in nitrogen being sent downriver into the Gulf of Mexico and causing more intense and larger dead zones.

      • Joe Musich

        No argument over your points. But we need something safer instead of more oil or nuclear for transition to sustainable and greater conservation

  • Elaine

    We need to move to smaller, more sustainable local farming. Big ag, and all of the govt. policies supporting it, are ruining our environment and our health. The current drought in California demonstrates our lack of knowledge about where our food comes from and how it is grown. GMO crops are destroying our soil. We are losing our butterflies and our pollinators. Growing corn for ethanol production is ludicrous. We need to decrease driving habits by analyzing our priorities and weighing the impacts of our choices upon the environment. We need to wake up.

  • Whitney Clark

    The 1972 federal Clean Water Act established a regulatory
    framework to compel reductions in water pollution from nearly all
    business sectors. The energy sector is subject to pollution
    limits. The mining sector is subject to state standards. The
    manufacturing sector must apply for and receive permits to
    discharge pollutants into MN waters. Publicly owned wastewater
    treatment plants have had to make major investments and have made
    major improvements in the amount of nutrients they discharge into
    our waters. Even our cities are required to make massive
    investments funded largely by local property taxes in stormwater
    management infrastructure to keep our waters clean.

    Only one sector — agriculture, has been exempted from this
    regulatory framework and we have chosen instead to rely on
    voluntary measures to reduce pollution of our surface and
    groundwater from agricultural sources.

    Unfortunately, today in the land of 10,000 lakes and the
    headwaters of the great Mississippi River 40 % of assessed waters
    fail to meet state standards for water quality. As agricultural
    methods and practices have intensified over recent decades
    significant increases in many agricultural pollutants have been
    observed around the state. Sediment from agricultural land use
    clogs the Minnesota and Mississippi Rivers far exceeding state
    standards. The MPCA’s clean up plan for sediment in the heavily
    agricultural Minnesota River basin calls for reductions in
    sediment loading of 50 to 60% in order to meet the state standard.
    Nitrogen concentrations in Minnesota surface and groundwater have
    also been observed to be increasing. Nitrate levels in Minnesota
    rivers and streams (years 2000-2010) exceeded 5 mg/l at 41% of
    monitored sites across Minnesota, and exceeded 10 mg/l in 27% of
    these sites. Cropland sources are estimated to account for 73% of
    nitrogen pollution to Minnesota’s surface waters and as high as
    “89-95% of nitrogen loading to portions of the Minnesota River,
    Missouri River, Cedar River and Lower Mississippi River basins in
    Minnesota.

    To most observers it is obvious that the voluntary approach has
    failed. We will not have clean water in MN until we get serious
    about addressing agricultural water pollution. Why should the
    state continue to hold all of its private and public sectors
    except one accountable for keeping our waters clean? Should Minnesotans be willing to live with polluted lakes,
    rivers and groundwater for generations to come in order to
    continue special treatment of one industrial sector?

  • Trevor Russell

    Yes. Farm operations should play by the same rules as everyone else. Its unfair that one sector of the economy can ignore clean water rules at the expense of everyone else.

  • Of course the solution is out of the box.

    Does voluntarily mean valueless? I farm, so do I voluntarily grow corn or it is mandatory. Do you voluntarily conduct your work activities or are they mandatory? People with freedoms voluntarily do things for value. There at least methods 1) Mandatory Regulations, 2) Voluntarily with no value, and/or 3) Voluntarily with value. We, as reasonable people, need to consider this third option prior to moving to the very expensive and antagonistic #1.

    And don’t form your opinion. You have yet to even given it three minutes of thought.

  • Jeffrey S Broberg

    Why do we insist that PolyMet put up money in advance to clean-up water that is not yet polluted and we allow farmers to pollute water without making them pay a dime? We coddle farmers and tell them they are doing a “great job” but in the karst region of SE Minnesota and the Central Sands the groundwater is contaminated with nitrates at an ever increasing and alarming rate while the rest of the state sends the nitrate pollutants down the Mississippi River generating hypoxia in the Gulf of Mexico, but, farmers are not held liable, are exempt from the Clean Water Act and act like they are entitled to what every they please. When will we hold farming accountable and require an excise tax on nitrogen fertilizer to pay for the cleanup of our water?

    • Dan Brandt

      Jeff, I’m sorry that you don’t like farmers but it appears you still eat pretty well.
      All the data I’ve seen is still kind of a cluster and no one has figured anything out except you. there are over 400 hypoxia areas in the world. are farmers responsible for all of them?

  • Farmers have managed their land within the context of being a “public policy-taker and market price-taker” for quite some time. These lines are starting to blur as private policy-makers (corporations) are developing environmental and social policies that have traditionally resided only in government. In other words, agriculture governance is becoming “shared”. Whether this is viewed as an additional challenge or opportunity is the decision that is being made by farmer organizations and aware farmers. What is occurring, is that each of these silos – corp, NGO and gov – are not as prominent in their own right and that the private practitioner (farmer) has an opportunity to capitalize on this emerging demand – or the challenge of allowing farmer organization leaders to carry on the 20th century battles.

  • Joe

    I was confused when it said the author was “James Woods” like the actor when it’s someone named “James Wood,” especially since most things pubically written by James Woods is fiction like Obamacare being about “thinning the herd”…

  • John Scherber

    As a former Minnesotan, can I suggest my own book on the expat experience in Mexico?After 15 months of crisscrossing that country, my new book looks at Americans and Canadians who’ve chosen to avoid the big expat colonies in San Miguel de Allende and Lake Chapala. What they’ve found is both diverse and surprising. If you’re wondering what the expat experience is like, whether on the beach or in the colonial cities of the interior, you need to listen to this conversation. The book is called Into the Heart of Mexico: Expatriates Find Themselves Off the Beaten Path, and there is no other book like it. There’s a sample on my website:

    http://www.sanmiguelallendebooks.com/intotheheartofmexico.html