Should farmers be forced to change?

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

That’s clear from two stories in recent days.

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.

It’s also clear from the volume of comments and questions we received in our Public Insight Network and from some of the comments we received on the first of these question-and-answer blog posts. Lots of people want to hold farmers more responsible for what they put on the land. One of the stories we’ll cover later in this Beneath the Surface series will deal with the state Department of Agriculture’s draft plan for encouraging better use of nitrogen fertilizers.

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. Here’s what a couple people steeped in the question have to say. What do you think? Add your thoughts in the comment section.

FROM THE PUBLIC INSIGHT NETWORK:  Why shouldn’t farmers be made to adopt practices that pollute less, perhaps restricting the fertilizer and pesticides they put on their land? 

Warren FormoWarren Formo,  executive director, Minnesota Agricultural Water Resource Center

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.

Dave FredericksonDave Frederickson, commissioner, Department of Agriculture

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.

(NOTE: I also put to Frederickson an additional question about having farmers pay a special tax on chemicals that end up in water systems. DP.)

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.

Question 1. Should water cost us more?

  • BWMorlan

    As a Planning Commissioner in a Township, I am already trying to figure out how to quantify this problem. One obvious problem we have is getting good local analytics (sorry, my day job is in analytics) in place to test (at the back-of-the-envelope level) the impact of various strategies. Then, how to handle it if the answer is that changes today will solve a problem but will take 100 yrs and it will continue to get worse for the next 40 years as the system has to first finish absorbing the bad stuff that is already in play. Meanwhile, the developers just keep on coming.