New regulations recommended for agriculture in Water Sustainability Framework
By Heather Thorstensen
Date Modified: 07/14/2011 12:08 PM
ST. PAUL — A report recommends new regulations on the agriculture industry in order to help Minnesota achieve a sustainable water supply.
The Minnesota Water Sustainability Framework, led by the University of Minnesota Water Resources Center, lists 10 problems that the state needs to address to protect and conserve its water resources.
Five actions are deemed the most critical.One of them would require that Total Maximum Daily Load implementation plansbe carried out.
"This is pretty controversial because the U.S. EPA has not gone there, the federal government has not gone there and no other state has gone there, but we are recommending that the state of Minnesota go there," said Deborah Swackhamer, leader of the report as co-director of the Water Resources Center.
TMDL implementation plans are based on studies that are conducted on impaired waters, those that don't meet quality standards set in the federal Clean Water Act.Forty percent of surface water in the state and nation are deemed impaired, Swackhamer said.
The plans have pollution reduction goals to restore water quality.Currently, there is no framework that requires those load reductions to be fully implemented.
The report also calls for a revision in state policy in regards toagricultural sources of nutrients, solids,pesticides and bacteria. The change would require farmers to carry out their pollutant load reductions called for in TMDL implementation plans. Currently, agricultural runoff and drainage is mostly unregulated.
If implementation plans are required, all sectors that need to make pollutant load reductions must be involved in order for the effort to be equitable, Swackhamer said.
Agriculture was specifically mentioned in the report because it is a large source of water impairments in Minnesota and the nation, she said. The report recognizes voluntary management practices that farmers use to reduce their pollutant loads, but says that's not enough to reach Minnesota's water quality goals.
Glenn Skuta, water monitoring manager for the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, thinks part of the reason why farms have been exempt from this type of regulation so far is that the logistics of doing so would be difficult since agriculture's discharges are diffused over land areas. Agriculture also has a value to society in providing food and fiber.
But over time, the regulated, point sources of pollution, such as waste water treatment plants, have greatly reduced the amount of pollutants they contribute to watersheds. Nonpoint sources, which includes farming, is the majority of the problem now and it's not being fully addressed, he said.
The report recommends that farmers be treated as an area source in the TMDL implementation plans, meaning they would be expected to reduce their pollutant loads as a group. Agricultural Management Areas would be established within watersheds and owners of agricultural land would be required to join. Farmers would decide for themselves how to reduce their pollution loads.
The report doesn't call for farmers to be treated as point sources or recommend they be required to get permits to meet the plan.
It recommends that an entity, perhaps a blend of watershed and soil conservation authorities, oversee an AMA and be responsible for collecting data to show compliance. The entity would have taxing authority for an assessment to oversee the AMA. The assessment could be used to provide cost-share opportunities for putting in conservation practices.Farmers would be fined if they are out of compliance after a certain amount of time and the AMA would decide how to distribute the fine.
The report says its farmer-led, performance-based approach is based on models used in Florida and Nebraska.
A benchmark calls for 95 percent of agricultural lands to be in compliance with water quality standards by 2025.
The report also suggests that an agricultural sustainable water certification is made for all products and agricultural goods that come from compliant AMAs.