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Water quality hearing draws concerned citizens

By Janet Kubat Willette
jkubat@agrinews.com

Date Modified: 03/15/2013 10:22 AM

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STEWARTVILLE, Minn. – A vocal group of about 30 gathered in Stewartville Feb. 12 to discuss Minnesota's Agricultural Water Quality Certification Program.

The listening session, the second in a series of six, drew comments that ran the gamut from people questioning what protection certainty really offers to whether this program gives farmers a free pass to pollute.

The Minnesota Agricultural Water Quality Certification Program is the first program of its kind in the nation. It's being crafted under a memorandum of understanding between the state of Minnesota and the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The goal is to entice farmers to voluntarily install conservation practices that lead to improvements in water quality. In return, farmers are given certainty for 10 years that they will be immune from new regulations as long as they continue to maintain the conservation measures or best management practices they were doing when admitted to the program.

The program's vision is to five-fold, said program manager Brad Redlin. The key points include developing a voluntary program to enhance water quality while maintaining profitability; recognize farmers who are doing a good job; provide certainty and assurance to the public that farmers are doing a good job, and provide certainty to farmers that attain and maintain certification criteria.

Glen Groth, a Winona County farmer, said the state's executive branch is granting certainty through the program, but what about the legislative and judicial branch?

Assistant agriculture commissioner Matt Wohlman said the agriculture department will pursue legislative language to define certainty.

"We'll never be able to get the executive, the legislative and the judicial branch on this," Wohlman said.

Groth said he's concerned that big budget environmental groups will go after the certainty program.

Wohlman said the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency is the main agency that sets water quality regulations in the state and has been delegated powers from the U.S. EPA. Certainty says that a farm has already met the requirements to reduce pollution.

Jeff Broberg, who owns an Elba Township farm and is vice president of McGhie and Betts Environmental Services, asked if the impairments will be known in watersheds selected to pilot the certainty program or if farmers will receive a free pass to pollute by being exempted from making improvements if a TMDL comes to the watershed where the land is located.

"Nobody's getting a free pass," Wohlman said.

Farmers who enter the certification program will voluntarily accelerate their adoption of best management practices, he said. BMPs have been researched and studied and the outcomes of their adoption are documented.

The impairments will be known on pilot watersheds selected for the program. Agriculture commissioner Dave Frederickson last week put out a call for recommendations on pilot watersheds.

"Minnesota farm organizations, soil and water conservation districts, commodity councils, wildlife organizations and other agriculture-related groups can recommend a watershed a watershed in their area as ideally suited for a pilot project location," Frederickson said in a press release.

The pilot areas will be located in the northwest, central/southwest and southeast parts of the state.

Pilot projects will run for a maximum of three years. Recommendations must be submitted by March 1. Call Redlin at 651-201-6489 or email him at brad.redlin@state.mn.us to obtain a recommendation form. Watersheds of any size may be recommended.

The Natural Resources Conservation Service has pledged up to $1 million per year per pilot project watershed to accelerate adoption of conservation measures that improve water quality. Gov. Mark Dayton has included $3 million over the biennium for the program. This would primary go to programming, staffing and building a measurement tool, Wohlman said.

Daryl Buck, district manager of the Winona Soil and Water Conservation District, said targeting conservation dollars to a small group of producers often leaves others who want to do projects unable to access funds, while funds in the targeted area go unused.

Wohlman encouraged people to nominate watersheds with landowners who are eager to make conservation improvements.

The program's conservation measurement tool will likely be a blend of the NRCS Water Quality Index and the Conservation Stewardship Program's Conservation Measurement Tool, Wohlman said.

"I'm a farmer myself, the last thing I want to do is implement a program that doesn't work," he said.

Broberg said the certification program doesn't address his water quality concerns. A third of the wells in Winona County are too polluted to drink from. The water in his well and throughout his neighborhood has 20 ppm nitrates.

He was optimistic the certification program was going to be about water quality; instead he said all he heard at the meeting was to get involved in the certification program to avoid regulation rather than to get involved to improve water quality.

"Don't we need to develop a culture of 'we care about the water?'?" Broberg said.

Attendees debated who's to blame for water pollution – urban or rural areas – but Wohlman said if you're part of society, you're part of the problem and all need to be engaged in finding solutions.