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MPCA plan targets nitrogen runoff from farms

Mike Mullen//October 9, 2013//

MPCA plan targets nitrogen runoff from farms

Mike Mullen//October 9, 2013//

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Rep. Jean Wagenius, right, chair of the House Environment, Natural Resources and Agriculture Finance Committee, listened Monday during a hearing on a draft plan to cut nitrogen runoff levels. (Staff photo: Peter Bartz-Gallagher)
Rep. Jean Wagenius, right, chair of the House Environment, Natural Resources and Agriculture Finance Committee, listened Monday during a hearing on a draft plan to cut nitrogen runoff levels. (Staff photo: Peter Bartz-Gallagher)

Report underscores threat to drinking water, Mississippi basin

Minnesota used to be a wheat state. But the state agricultural scene has drifted dramatically in favor of soybean and corn crops, which these days yield a much more productive and profitable harvest for the state’s cropland.

Along with the transition has come new techniques and technology, which have pushed corn production to higher and higher levels. That crop’s use in a greater number of food products and the rise of ethanol as an alternative to fossil fuels has driven prices to ever-higher levels.

The bountiful corn crop isn’t all positive, though. Farmers have treated their cornfields with nitrogen-based fertilizer, which has helped boost yields, but also raised concerns about that nutrient’s possible health impacts on humans and the environment. Excess nitrogen in drinking water can lead to human health risks, including possibly higher rates of cancer and the incidence of an anemia known as “blue baby syndrome.”

With respect to the environment, scientists blame surging levels of nitrogen passed down the Mississippi River for the annual occurrence of hypoxia, a suffocating condition better known as a “dead zone,” in the Gulf of Mexico.

On Monday, the House Environment, Natural Resources and Agriculture Finance Committee heard an initial draft plan from the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) on the state’s effort to cut down on nitrogen levels. This summer, an exhaustive MPCA report, reflecting decades of findings at dozens of sites, found nitrogen levels were significantly higher in state bodies of water than they had been in the 1970s. In southern Minnesota, 27 percent of lakes and rivers were found to be too polluted for drinking.

The MPCA’s proposal has landed at the same time as a Department of Agriculture plan, and both are now open for public comment.

Committee member Rep. Rick Hansen, DFL-South St. Paul, helped craft a Department of Agriculture strategy aimed at dealing with nitrogen back in 1990, when he worked at that agency.

“Things we talked about a generation ago, we’re still talking about,” Hansen said. “And I’m hopeful we’re not going to be, 20 years from now, having the same discussion.”

MPCA aims for 20 percent reduction

Under the MPCA reduction proposal, farmers would be tasked with cutting nitrogen output by 20 percent by 2025, and would ultimately take steps to reduce the nitrogen levels of the Mississippi River basin by 45 percent. In presenting the plan to legislators, MPCA Assistant Commissioner Rebecca Flood said the project is mostly a matter of replicating “best management practices,” which she said are already in effect on some farms.

Already, she testified, pilot programs have shown progress on cutting nitrogen runoff into Minnesota watersheds.

“We need to scale up their application throughout the state to achieve needed reductions from the agricultural sector,” Flood told legislators. “We need to task our existing programs to optimize our reductions, and through our extensive monitoring network now in place, we’ll need to be able to track our progress.”

The MPCA recommendations include efforts to optimize the timing and use of nitrogen-based fertilizer, so that less is necessary, and the planting of “cover crops.”

On first blush, the agency’s approach is agreeable to farming interests. Thom Petersen, a lobbyist with the Minnesota Farmers Union, said his fellow farmers have been well aware of the problem of excess nitrates for the last five years, and said the danger can be exacerbated by extreme weather events, which increase the amount of tile drainage from farm land.

Petersen said farmers, too, are concerned about excess nitrogen in the state’s watersheds, pointing out that his own drinking well is located just 200 feet from his cornfield. He expects a set of best practices to reduce nitrogen would soon spread through the state agriculture industry.

“Farmers are rapidly adapting to change,” Petersen said.

Petersen’s comments were echoed by Rep. Denny McNamara, R-Hastings, who serves as Republican lead on the House Environment, Natural Resources and Agriculture Finance Committee. McNamara makes his living as a farmer, as do several of the Republican members of the committee, and said those members are largely supportive of the “best practices” approach. The state should try to cooperate with farmers in addressing the issue rather than taking a confrontational position, he argued.

“Working with agriculture, and getting best management practices, I believe, is going to get a lot better results,” McNamara said, adding: “There’s some really cool stuff happening in that regard of best management practices.”

For his part, Hansen doesn’t disagree about the desirability of best practices, but points out that the main approach of the MPCA and Department of Agriculture share at least one major strategy: Both draft plans call for farmers to self-police, and to voluntarily adjust their own practices.  In the case of the MPCA proposal, the draft plan presumes the eventual adoption of best practices by 80 percent of farmers, a rate that Hansen called unrealistic.

“I don’t know anywhere where you can find that,” Hansen said. “Do we even have that with a 55 mile an hour speed limit?”

Hansen: voluntarism not enough

Hansen is advocating for a more aggressive approach that would include an enforcement component. To his way of thinking, farmers who fail to cooperate on the best practices ideal should be subject to losing some benefits; he mentioned a loss of public subsidies or tax write-offs as possible consequences. Without those enforcement aspects in place, Hansen thinks the current plans lack teeth.

“Some best practices are such a good idea they should be required,” he said.

One observer from afar applauds Minnesota’s attempt to at least broach the topic of cutting nitrogen levels. Nancy Rabalais, executive director of Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium, has spent decades monitoring the effects of excess nitrogen from the other end of the Mississippi River. This year, the dead zone resulting from nitrogen runoff into the Mississippi was about 5,790 square miles – larger than the state of Connecticut.

Scientists and geologists have been warning of the nitrogen problem for some time. The MPCA strategy is, in part, meant to constitute the state’s participation in a multi-state task force formed by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Rabalais said a draft plan for that task force reached President Bill Clinton’s desk in early 2001, but has since been pushed back repeatedly, and is yet to go into effect.

Rabalais said the issue has become heavily politicized. She noted that farming interests are loud and wealthy players in state-level politics, and have effectively delayed the implementation of plans. She applauds Minnesota for trying to deal with nitrogen, pointing out that some states involved in the EPA task force have begun using the phrase “nutrient management,” and are no longer thinking about pushing for reduction. Even still, Rabalais said designing and enforcing a workable solution to nitrogen pollution has proven difficult in most cases.

“There just has not been the political or social will to put this into effect,” Rabalais said.

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