Conservation Minnesota

Incentives Equal Water Quality Gains?

It’s usually exciting when prominent conservationists and environmentalists come to Minnesota with ideas for action.  This week we welcomed Lisa Jackson, the head of the Environmental Protection Agency, and Tom Vilsack, the Secretary of Agriculture, who brought forth a proposal to aid agricultural producers in abetting pollution of our waters.

While the proposal is somewhat vague and yet to be firmed up at this point, it would provide technical and financial incentives to Minnesota farmers if they adopt conservation practices on their land for improved water quality in public water bodies.  Ten million dollars is the amount that would be available to assist on these practices, which would include items like creating and preserving buffer strips along waterways, leaving crop residue on soil to hold water on the land, and controlling the amount of fertilizer and pesticide spread on crops.

In turn, farmers who would participate voluntarily would be exempt for up to ten years of environmental regulation.  This is a concern for environmental groups who say that because of farmers’ contribution to the nonpoint pollution of waterways that this regulation-break is too generous.  Farmers mostly have been exempt from provisions of the Federal Clean Water Act, but they have known for decades now that their non-conservation practices can contribute mightily to water pollution.

It is not known yet how strong a role the state will have in helping to implement this proposal.  Initially, however, the appropriate state agencies, with assistance from ag producers, environmentalists and concerned citizens, will develop a laundry list of known and approved conservation practices that would be eligible for the technical and financial assistance.

This is an attempt at the market-based approach to environmental compliance.  Since regulation has become a “dirty word” in government parlance, incentives to encourage compliance have been tried in many venues.  A constitutional amendment, which easily passed the Texas Legislature to get on the ballot (Proposition 8, 2011), was recently defeated there because post-analysis speculated that the ballot language was confusing to Texas voters.  The measure would have given Texas farmers a property tax reduction if they adopted water stewardship principles to keep water clean on their land.

Longtime national water policy expert, Larry Morandi, said this was the first time lower property taxes have been tried for clean water purposes.  He stated it could work because it gives landowners the choice to comply:  “Providing market incentives for landowners to decide what they want to do, whether in liberal or conservative states, that’s always the preferred approach than a regulation that says:  Hey, stop farming in this way.”

Because of this depressed economy and anti-regulation mode currently in place, it makes some sense to at least try a voluntary approach with incentives to encourage more conservation-minded farmers on our landscape.  However, the devil is always in the details and several questions remain to see how successful this might be.

* Will the federal government, through the EPA and Agriculture agencies, make the final determination on what approved conservation practices must be tried in order for the incentives?

* Will there be good balance for participants on developing the state laundry list of the above conservation practices?

* Will both current farmers in compliance with conservation law now and those in non-compliance, be eligible for the proposed program?

* Should we be targeting the latter for more benefit with these dollars and technical assistance?

* Who will evaluate, and how, if the conservation practices are followed over the time of payments?  Is a farmer willing to allow a state agency, such as the PCA, to come on their land for monitoring practices?

* Will farmers who sign up voluntarily to adopt conservation practices be exempt from only new regulatory measures for ten years, or all conservation regulation for that period?

* Does ten million dollars make much of a dent in the overall agricultural community for voluntary efforts to curb water pollution.

It will be interesting to see how the program details progress, but it surely can’t hurt some efforts to create more conservation in agriculture.

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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