Conservation Minnesota

Will Farmers Embrace Water Quality Certification?

JohnHellandbiopicBesides the new legislation for water restoration and protection strategies (WRAP) to combat nonpoint pollution, reported in this space two weeks ago, another new law will attempt to specifically target agricultural sources of nonpoint problems.

The new law, called the Minnesota Agricultural Water Quality Certification Program, which I will term for this blog (AWQC), was passed as part of the omnibus agriculture and environment bill, now known as Chapter 114 of the 2013 session.  It is an outgrowth of the Obama’s administration effort under Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack and former EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson to offer a new option for farmers to practice conservation and improve water quality in their watersheds.

Minnesota is the first state in the nation to utilize this joint federal/state effort to curb nonpoint agricultural pollution on a volunteer basis on farms.  Three million dollars was appropriated under Clean Water Legacy funds for improved conservation practices on ag lands that eventually will match an additional six million dollars from the federal Natural Resources and Conservation Service.

Minnesota, being the fifth most productive agricultural state in the country, and the headwaters of the Mississippi river, is in a good place for this program to start.  There have been plenty of studies to suggest and document the causes of how agricultural nonpoint pollution has affected water quality.  However, agricultural pollution is exempt from the federal Clean Water Act and the threat of any new regulation has never materialized.

So this new law and effort will be purely voluntary on the part of agricultural producers.  Besides some funding for improved land conservation practices, a certification program for approved farmers who are consistent with water quality goals and standards will not require them to meet any new standards for the period of their certification.

The certification period will be ten years for enrolled farmers, and it initially will be tried in four selected watersheds in the agricultural regions of the state.  Agricultural practices that are not already regulated by the state Department of Agricultural (DOA) will be targeted first.

The DOA is developing an agricultural assessment tool that they will use in the certification process to “score” whether a farm is using approved conservation practices.  They will also license approved professional conservation certifiers who will assess whether farmers are eligible for the new program.  State rules for more details will be promulgated by the DOA over the course of 2013.

The Commissioner of Agriculture will use random audits to ensure that the approved conservation practices continue for the ten-year certification period.

And, if any violation occurs in the certification agreement, a certification can be revoked by the commissioner.

Additionally, a new advisory committee will be assisting and assessing the program for the DOA.  And input will be received from the PCA, BWSR and the DNR on priority practices.

Although many conservationists wish that agriculture was under the auspices of the federal Clean Water Act, it isn’t and something needs to be tried to improve degrading water quality.  This new and somewhat bold effort is an attempt to start to make a difference.

Minnesota is once again in a spotlight to show that it’s farmers care about the environment, as well as current high crop prices.  Whether these additional incentives under the new law will cause farmers to voluntarily want to have their farms be program certified is a big question that awaits a definitive answer.

About John Helland

John Helland

John Helland is a history graduate of the University of Minnesota. He served as the nonpartisan legislative research analyst for the Minnesota House of Representatives after graduation. He worked extensively on environment and natural resources legislation and issues, and was the primary nonpartisan research staffer for the House Environment and Natural Resources Policy and Finance committees from 1971 to 2008.

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BarbNWMN says:

Banning farming in floodplains will result in millions going hungry. Be careful what you wish for, as some will eat and it won’t be you.

noeleich says:

I live near New Ulm next to the Minnesota River. Every year I watch farmers apply chemicals to the flood plain fields in preparation for planting. Every year the river rises and fills those fields and washes all the chemicals into the river. If you really want clean water in the rivers you can start by banning all chemical & fertilizer application to land in the floodplains. The next step would be banning all farming in the floodplains. Get some guts.