Serving Minnesota and Northern Iowa.

Four watersheds will shape certainty program

By Janet Kubat Willette
jkubat@agrinews.com

Date Modified: 07/02/2013 11:05 AM

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ST. PAUL — Now, the work begins.

Until now, the Minnesota Agricultural Water Quality Certification Program has only been a concept, an idea to protect and improve water quality while giving producers certainty that regulations won't be changed once they've attained a predetermined goal.

Now, four watersheds will begin to build the program through their pilot efforts.

The selected watersheds reflect the diversity of the state's agricultural systems and landscapes. They are:

• The Whitewater River Watershed in southeast Minnesota. This watershed contains 205,000 acres in parts of Olmsted, Wabasha and Winona counties. Dairy and beef are the major livestock enterprises and the watershed is 45 percent cropland, 20 percent forest, 27 percent grassland and 5 percent developed. The watershed area is split roughly a third each across the three counties.

• The Middle Sauk River Watershed in central Minnesota. The watershed covers more than 50 percent of the state's leading dairy county, Stearns. The watershed contains 175,640 acres, with about 124,258 acres of cropland. The crops are a mixture of corn, soybeans, hay and pasture.

• The Elm Creek Watershed in south central Minnesota. This is corn, soybean and hog country. The watershed contains 173,000 acres in parts of Jackson, Martin and Faribault counties. The three Soil and Water Conservation District Managers in this watershed have more than 100 years of combined leadership in the area.

• The Whiskey Creek Watershed in northwest Minnesota. The watershed encompasses 165.6 square miles in Otter Tail and Wilkin counties and contains the headwaters of the Red River of the North. Agriculture is the major land use in the area and the primary crops include corn, soybeans, sugar beets and wheat.

The watersheds were selected from more than a dozen applications submitted to the Minnesota Department of Agriculture. They were announced in a June 10 ceremony at the University of Minnesota.

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, in town for the announcement, called the program a historic opportunity to change the way people farm. Landowners will be given resources to invest in best practices and certified by the state to be in compliance. It's a completely different relationship, he said.

Other states are paying attention to what's happening with this program in Minnesota, Vilsack said.

The program grew out of a Memorandum of Understanding signed by Gov. Mark Dayton, Vilsack and former Environmental Protection Agency administrator Lisa Jackson in January 2012. A 15-member technical committee developed recommendations for setting up the program, and the Legislature passed the framework in its recently completed session.

The program is voluntary. The concept is that producers will voluntarily accelerate the adoption of best management practices to become certified by the Minnesota Agricultural Water Quality Certification Program.

Farmers aren't exempt from existing requirements, but the goalpost doesn't move for the 10 years they are certified by the program.

The pilot program brings with it additional dollars. The state is contributing $3 million from Clean Water, Land and Legacy sales tax funds and the federal government an additional $6.5 million, which will flow primarily through Environmental Quality Incentive Program contracts.

The four watersheds selected each have unique reasons for wanting to be in on the ground floor of the certainty program.

Bruce Albright from the Whiskey Creek Watershed said they will be able to form and shape the end product as a pilot.

They want to "be the horse that pulls the cart rather than just a rider," said Peter Fjestad, also from Whiskey Creek Watershed.

A great deal of water quality data has been collected in the watershed and a TMDL is in progress. The watershed has a strong partnership with the Soil and Water Conservation Districts in Wilkin and western Otter Tail counties.

In the Middle Sauk, many producers are willing to volunteer for projects, said Chuck Uphoff, a farmer who represented the watershed at the event.

Uphoff said one farmer with 500 acres won't change the world, but working together, many producers who have 500 acres can.

In the Elm Creek Watershed, Linda Meschke said many good producers are motivated to make improvements to water quality and agricultural productivity. Meschke is with Rural Advantage, one of the partners in the application.

There is a little anxiety among producers, but that is common with any new program, she said.

Meschke is eager to figure out the new program and to work with partners in the watershed to make it a success. The goal is to get Elm Creek off the impaired waters list. It's on the list for turbidity, dissolved oxygen and other impairments common to intensively farmed areas.

Farmer, Olmsted County Commissioner and Whitewater board member Matt Flynn said he envisions the pilot watersheds becoming showcases for other watersheds. His primary concern is erosion. There's a long history of soil loss in the Whitewater valleys.

"It's an honor really to be one of the pilots and represent the state and hopefully the local farmers will take pride in it," Flynn said.

Matt Wohlman, assistant commissioner, Minnesota Department of Agriculture, said they will start working with producers in the pilot areas right away. The goal is to be able to certify producers this fall.