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Vilsack launches Minnesota farm water quality program

June 20, 2013 | 0 comments

Four Minnesota watersheds have been selected to test a first-in-the nation voluntary pilot project that offers farmers incentives to reduce water pollution from their operations in exchange for protection from tighter future regulations, federal and state officials announced Monday, June 3.

U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack joined Gov. Mark Dayton and other officials at the University of Minnesota to announce details of the Minnesota Agricultural Water Quality Certification Program.

Farmers who sign up must agree to adopt good conservation practices to control soil erosion and the runoff of manure, fertilizers and insecticides.

In return, they'll get the guaranteed certainty that they won't be subjected to stricter rules for 10 years as long as they meet their obligations. Technical and financial assistance will be available.

The pilot areas are the Whitewater River watershed in southeastern Minnesota, the Middle Sauk River watershed in central Minnesota, the Elm Creek watershed in south-central Minnesota and the Whiskey Creek watershed in the northwest.

The immediate goal is to use these small areas to refine the program, then take it statewide within three years and eventually nationwide.

Vilsack said he expects other states will want to emulate the voluntary model. He said it marks a new kind of relationship between the regulators and the regulated. The former Iowa governor also jokingly added fuel to the Minnesota-Iowa rivalry in the process.

"I can guarantee you I am going to be talking to Iowans about this, and how embarrassed I was that I had to be in Minnesota to make this announcement, alright? And hopefully they will follow suit. And then we'll go down to Missouri and talk to the folks in Missouri and say 'how can you let Minnesota and Iowa do something?' All of a sudden it will sweep across the Midwest, and then ultimately other regions of the country," he said.

The program is the product of an agreement the state and federal government signed last year.

The Legislature appropriated $3 million from the Clean Water Legacy sales tax fund to launch the program and to gain access to $6.5 million in federal funding.

The four areas were selected from 12 that applied, and the terrain and types of agriculture practiced in them vary.

The Whitewater River watershed, for example, has plateaus where row crops dominate and deep forested valleys where beef and dairy cattle graze. It's also a popular tourist destination, with more than 100 miles of trout streams and two state parks.

The Sauk River watershed covers more than half of Stearns County, the state's top dairy producing county, and has over 14 cows per square mile.

Controlling water pollution from agriculture has been a political and technical challenge. Agriculture is exempt from the federal Clean Water Act, so officials have emphasized voluntary measures and said they hope the new program provides assurances to the public that farmers are doing their part.

"Certification is not a free pass," said state Assistant Agriculture Commissioner Matt Wohlman. "It does not exempt farmers from existing rules or requirements. But it does offer insurance against a moving regulatory goalpost in the future."

Kris Sigford, water quality program director with the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy said the program looks promising though it remains to be seen whether enough farmers ultimately participate to make a difference.

"The environmental community is taking sort of a guarded look at this point," she said.

Now they now need to take a close look at the process for how farmers get certified and earn their 10-year passes from needing to take additional steps, Sigford said, adding that much of the information the program gathers isn't subject to the state's open records law, raising concerns about the public's ability to determine whether its investment pays off in cleaner water.

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