New water program follows state-federal agreement
Under the terms of a bill that passed the Legislature this spring, Minnesota is embarking on a first-of-its-kind experiment in preventing agricultural runoff from contaminating the state’s streams.
“The fact that we are the first state in the nation that will take part in this agricultural water certification program reflects our leadership as environmental stewards,” said Minnesota Democratic U.S. Sen. Al Franken. Minnesota’s junior U.S. senator spoke against the backdrop of farm machinery and test plots of wheat at the University of Minnesota’s St. Paul campus, where state and federal officials assembled on Monday to laud the passage of a new program for farmers to implement water-conservation practices on a voluntary basis.
The state’s new water-quality certification program stems from a memorandum of understanding signed by Gov. Mark Dayton and the heads of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in January 2012. The program was passed into law as part of this year’s omnibus environment and agriculture budget bill. Lawmakers also approved funding from the Legacy bill to leverage federal funding.
Both agriculture and environmental interests score victories and make concessions under the terms of the program, which will be limited to four different watershed areas during its initial pilot phase. Farmers who participate must meet a set of conservation standards to be certified into the program and receive funding; in return, those who take part will be exempted from any new state water rules for the next 10 years.
Matt Wohlman, assistant commissioner for the Minnesota Department of Agriculture, said the 10-year exemption is designed to give farmers “greater stability with regard to conservation goals, the regulatory environment and related business costs” as they implement water conservation measures.
“It is important to understand certification is not a free pass,” Wohlman said. “It does not exempt farmers from existing rules or requirements. But it does offer insurance against a moving regulatory goal post in the future.”
Forestalling harsher regulation
The voluntary program is likely to prove less onerous for farmers than a statewide mandate. Thom Petersen, director of government relations for the Minnesota Farmers Union, said the move to embrace the certification program was made in part out of concern that government regulations may result if farmers can’t seize the initiative in reducing water pollution.
“In other parts of the country, a lot of the environmental groups are saying that we need to move water from voluntary enforcement to a regulatory enforcement on farm runoff,” Petersen said. “That’s what we hear more and more of — that farmers aren’t doing enough and we need to move to a regulatory-type [approach]. I do think that is what brought this forward.”
Petersen said he told legislators this session that failure to embark on the program would represent a setback in their efforts to make the case that they are stewards of the land. “It’s a voluntary program,” he said, “and if we can’t show we’re willing to do a voluntary program, I’m not sure that that speaks well for agriculture.”
The types of conservation projects envisioned include systems that control the drainage of water from fields with drain tiles. Another option is grass buffer strips that slow down runoff into nearby waterways.
After the memorandum of understanding was signed, a group of stakeholders made recommendations that became the basis of this year’s legislation. State officials are currently at work in figuring out how the criteria will be applied to the farmers who seek entry into the program. Brad Redlin, the state Agriculture Department’s certification program manager, said a technical team is refining the metrics for assessing farms, such as weather history, soil types and other inputs, as deemed necessary. The assessment protocol will allow the state to determine whether farms meet the program’s qualifications or need improvement.
“From [the assessment], we will then have to make the big decision as to what scoring will equate to certification,” Redlin said.
Environmental groups wary
The water-quality certification program has been watched with some trepidation by Minnesota environmental groups. Kris Sigford, water-quality director for the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy, who served on the certification program’s advisory council, said the quality of the criteria that are used for determining program eligibility are crucial in making sure the program is successful in reducing water pollution.
If the program is successful, it will serve as a model for farm water-conservation practices throughout the country, said Tom Vilsack, the secretary of the USDA. He lamented during Monday’s press conference that Minnesota was adopting the program ahead of his home state of Iowa, where he was a Democratic governor.
“It launches not just a water-quality certification program here in Minnesota, but it indeed provides an extraordinary example for the entire country,” Vilsack said. “It creates a new dynamic and new way of approaching regulation. So often we hear criticisms of regulations, and part of the reason is folks can never be assured that if they follow the regulation, rules aren’t going to change. So there’s a reluctance to invest. There’s a reluctance to embrace what folks know is good for the land and good for the rivers. Minnesota is now saying there is a different way, a new way, a more creative way to approach these issues.”
Minnesota has approved four out of 12 applications from local watersheds to participate in the program. On Monday, Dayton announced that the selected watersheds were the Whitewater River in southeastern Minnesota, Elm Creek in south-central Minnesota, Middle Sauk River in central Minnesota, and Whiskey Creek in northwestern Minnesota.
Toward the end of getting farmers to participate, the state and federal governments are pouring in a combined $9.5 million for technical assistance and financial support in implementing conservation projects. The USDA is providing $6.5 million through its Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP). The state appropriated $3 million out of the Clean Water Fund that was part of this year’s Legacy funding bill. Rep. Rick Hansen, DFL-South St. Paul, noted that the Clean Water Council, which makes Legacy recommendations to the Legislature, originally recommended $1 million for the program. State lawmakers opted to increase the amount in hopes of propelling the program to a fast start.
Going forward, Hansen said the certification program will benefit the active role played by local water-conservation leaders in generating interest among farmers.
“Ultimately it takes implementation of practices on the ground to change water quality,” Hansen said. “Having the advisory team, and having careful implementation at the local level where you can have local leadership try different ways of engaging farmers and landowners to participate, I think, is important.”
Hansen said the certification program could give farmers an economic boost in addition to yielding environmental benefits. He noted that certification programs for timber harvesting in Minnesota have been a selling point for furniture makers and other wood products buyers.
“Perhaps at the end of this,” Hansen said, “you will have purchasers looking to purchase water-quality-certified products from farms that have gone through the certification process. [Then] it becomes a marketing advantage for the producer. Not just peer pressure of doing the right thing, but a financial incentive for doing the right thing.”