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Water report disappoints ag leaders

A comprehensive water report generated by the University of Minnesota’s Water Resources Center offers suggestions on how to protect and preserve Minnesota’s lakes, rivers and groundwater for the next 25 years.

The Minnesota Water Sustainability Framework, a $750,000 report commissioned by the 2009 Minnesota Legislature, recommends timelines and benchmarks for future investments in water resources that will be paid for with tax dollars generated by the state amendment, the Clean Water, Land and Legacy Act.

Since July 2009, state residents have been paying an additional three-eighths of 1% in sales tax to fund outdoor heritage, clean water, parks and trails, and arts and cultural heritage programs. The increase was estimated to generate $80 million in fiscal year 2010 and $91 million in FY 2011 just for clean water. Billions of dollars will have been raised and spent by the time the tax amendment expires in 2034.

Key Points

Agriculture was one of eight areas discussed in U-M water report.

Farm leaders say current conservation practices, programs are overlooked.

A recommendation to combine watershed districts and SWCDs is not popular.


Lead author and WRC Director Deb Swackhamer says the report is intended to serve as a road map, offering suggestions on how and when to spend the money on science-based research. Swackhamer and the WRC gathered input from 200 team members who developed technical white papers, providing a knowledge base for the report. The teams focused on these aspects of water: agricultural, domestic, manufacturing and energy use; recreational/spiritual/cultural use; ecosystem services; water education; water policy; and water valuation. The teams identified 53 areas of concern, which were then grouped into the 10 issues that form the structure of the WRC report.

A key agricultural recommendation calls for establishing Agricultural Management Areas that include all ag land within a watershed (defined as the major eight-digit Hydrologic Unit Code, or HUC). Minnesota has about the same number of watersheds as counties, though a watershed can include portions of several counties. The AMAs would be required to meet “the agricultural sectors’ pollutant load reduction allocated by that watershed’s Total Maximum Daily Load study and implementation plan.”

AMAs would operate similarly to farmer cooperatives and determine how to meet these load reductions. Each area would be overseen by Watershed and Soil Conservation Authorities that would be established throughout the state at the watershed scale.

The report also identified the following science and technology gaps:

Impacts of excess nutrients on overall ecosystem structure and function are not well-characterized.

Effectiveness of best management practices or treatment technologies on large scales and long time frames is unknown.

The effectiveness of pollutant load reductions is not well-quantified.

Farmer feedback

Initial reaction to the report from the farm community was disappointment. Farm groups say it doesn’t add anything new to water quality discussions, and it neglects advancements made in farm conservation practices over the last few decades.

“The recommendations relative to agriculture reveal a very limited awareness and understanding of modern farming practices and of rural Minnesota,” says Warren Formo, a co-chairman of the report’s agricultural resource team and executive director of the Minnesota Agricultural Water Resources Coalition. “Many of Minnesota’s watershed districts and SWCDs are working effectively on water quality issues, yet their efforts seem to have gone unnoticed amidst the call for a new local water planning structure.”

Farmers are “at the table” during water quality discussions, Formo adds, but they usually encounter a host of ingrained myths and misinformation that agriculture must be “the problem.”

The farm community is working on the research gaps identified by the report, such as the inadequate data on ecosystem impacts and BMP effectiveness, he says.

“Minnesota farmers, primarily through their checkoff programs, are part of several research efforts to better understand the impacts various farm practices have on natural resources and farm output,” Formo says. “Discovery Farms, for example, is a field-scale research project designed to assess water quality effects, both good and bad, of different farming systems in place across Minnesota.

Another major research effort funded by Minnesota corn and soybean farmers is helping characterize sediment sources and transport through the Minnesota River and its tributaries. Such studies will allow informed, meaningful discussion and action, both across the Minnesota River Basin and downstream.”

Formo adds that the eight technical teams were not involved in developing framework recommendations.

“We were given explicit direction to focus on issues, knowledge and research gaps. The ag uses team was not asked to provide input on recommendations, including those relating directly to agriculture.”

Ag has been ‘at the table’

Farm organizations take issue with the framework’s recommendation that says farmers should implement plans and comply with water quality standards, and that farmers should be brought “to the table to be part of this solution.”

“We have brought agriculture’s concerns and water quality and the Total Maximum Daily Load process to the table, going back to 2003,” says Chris Radatz, Minnesota Farm Bureau public policy team director. “At that time, we were asked to serve on the G-16 by the commissioner of the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency to develop a statewide framework to deal with water quality issues. We actively participated in that process, which led to the passage of the Clean Water Legacy Act in 2006. We continue our involvement in water quality activities with our participation on the Minnesota Agricultural Water Resources Coalition.”

Thom Peterson, Minnesota Farmers Union policy director, notes that MFU also was at that same G-16 table.

“MFU and other groups literally attended hundreds of meetings to produce this product, and we should give it time to work,” he says.

Peterson says MFU is still reviewing the plan. There are some good suggestions, as well as ones that are concerning, such as how the plan interacts with absentee landowners, water-usage fees and natural background considerations.

“A recommendation about combining watershed districts and soil and water districts is a concern for MFU,” Peterson says.

Staff at the Minnesota Association of Soil and Water Conservation Districts is reviewing the report, too. LeAnn Buck, executive director, says district members expressed concern about the potential for more regulation. MASWCDs rely on voluntary involvement of landowners and farmers to implement conservation practices. If both regulatory and voluntary programs were housed in one office, she wondered how often landowners, if they had conservation problems, would voluntarily ask for help.

“There is an existing system in place — NRCS [Natural Resources Conservation Service], technical standards for BMPs, citizen board members,” she says. “I wouldn’t want to lose what we already have on a voluntary level.”

For more information about the plans, visit www.wrc.umn.edu.

5 most critical recommendations

Revise water appropriations permitting and model the state’s water balance.

Comply with water quality standards through implementation plans for reducing pollutants and bring farmers to the table to be part of this solution.

Address future contaminants.

Integrate water- and land-use planning.

Align water, energy, land, transportation policies for sustainability.

How proceeds from tax will be spent

The Clean Water, Land and Legacy Act, an amendment approved by voters in 2008, increased the sales and use tax rate, starting July 1, 2009, by three-eighths of 1% on taxable sales until the year 2034.

The current general sales and use tax rate is now 6.875%.

Additional proceeds are dedicated as follows:

33% to the Outdoor Heritage Fund for restoring, protecting and enhancing wetlands, prairies, forests and habitat for game, fish and wildlife (approximately $91 million in FY 2011)

33% to the Clean Water Fund for protecting, enhancing and restoring water quality in lakes, rivers, streams and groundwater, with at least 5% of the fund spent to protect drinking water sources (about $91 million in FY 2011)

14.25% to the Parks and Trails Fund for supporting parks and trails of regional or statewide significance (approximately $39 million in FY 2011)

19.75% to the Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund for arts, arts education and arts access, and to preserve Minnesota’s history and cultural heritage (approximately $54.5 million in FY 2011)

These figures are estimates from the Minnesota Department of Revenue. The total amount of money available from future sales tax receipts can be greatly affected by general economic conditions in the state.

The dedicated money must supplement traditional funding sources for these purposes and cannot be used as a substitute.

10 issues of concern in WRC’s framework

Issue A: The need for a sustainable and clean water supply
Specific concerns: Surface-groundwater interactions, groundwater over-withdrawals, need for aggressive conservation, water reuse, cumulative impacts of multiple water appropriators, nitrates in drinking water.

Issue B: Excess nutrients and conventional pollutants
Specific concerns: Unregulated runoff and drainage from agriculture, unregulated urban stormwater runoff, underperforming septic systems, loss of shoreland to development, sources of phosphorus, pollutants such as mercury and PCBs that continue to cause fish advisories, “superfund” hazardous waste sites that have not yet been cleaned up.

Issue C: Contaminants of emerging concern
Specific concerns: Nonregulated or underregulated chemicals of emerging concern (endocrine-active compounds, nanoparticles and pharmaceuticals), certain pesticides that have unintended effects on human and/or wildlife, pathogens (regulated and unregulated) from animal and human waste and other sources.

Issue D: Land, air and water connection
Specific concerns: Turbidity of lakes and streams, cultural eutrophication, toxic chemical pollution, wetland loss, changes in hydrologic cycle, moving water off land too quickly, deposit of mercury in lakes and streams.

Issue E: Ecological and hydrological integrity
Specific concerns: Invasive species; loss of biological diversity; shoreland and aquatic habitat loss; hydrologic modifications, including drainage and dams; lack of ecosystem services valuation.

Issue F: Water-energy nexus
Specific concerns: Cooling water for thermoelectric plants, biomass and biofuel production, electricity use to distribute and treat water, hydropower.

Issue G: Water pricing and valuation
Specific concerns: Water pricing; lack of ecosystem services valuation; public ownership vs. private use rights; costs of remediation vs. costs of protection; to what degree is water treated and for what use; balancing economic environment with water resources protection; including recreation value, cultural value, and spiritual value in decision-making.

Issue H: Public water infrastructure needs
Specific concerns: Drinking water and wastewater treatment infrastructure building, expansion and maintenance; stormwater infrastructure; new treatment technologies; infrastructure related to water reuse; water security.

Issue I: Citizen engagement and education
Specific concerns: Unsustainable behavior (conservation practices are not widely practiced), health and environment disconnect (regulations address human health or ecosystem health, but rarely both), insufficient education (there is a lack of coordinated, ongoing water education across the continuum from K–12 to adult), citizen engagement in water stewardship (participation is uneven and organizations to promote it are hindered by a lack of long-term strategies and support).

Issue J: Governance and institutions
Specific concerns: State-level coordination (water management is not always coordinated across state agencies); legislative capacity (time and attention of lawmakers spent on complex water management issues); multiple organizations and agencies governing water at state and local levels; water policies, old and new, pieced together.


This article published in the February, 2011 edition of THE FARMER.

All rights reserved. Copyright Farm Progress Cos. 2011.