Trouble in the Water: Random acts of conservation - Water quality depends on farmers' willingness, not regulation

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As part of MPR's “Trouble in the Water” series, MPR’s Dan Gunderson reports on farming as a big part of Minnesota's clean water problem, and the potential solution of environmental stewardship by farmers.

The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency estimates that 40 percent of the state's lakes and streams are polluted. Much of that pollution is from soil, fertilizer and other contaminants flowing off farm fields — and cleaning it up is almost solely reliant on the goodwill of farmers. Cropland isn't regulated as a pollution source.

Report is second in an eight-part series.

Click links below for other parts of series:

part 1:

part 3:

part 4:

part 5:

part 6:

part 7:

part 8:


2016 MBJA Eric Sevareid Award, award of merit in Series - Large Market Radio category


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SPEAKER: In a state that's known for its lakes, this stat is sobering. The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency estimates that 40% of Minnesota's waters are polluted. The contaminants in the state's waters can harm human health as well as aquatic life. Agriculture is a big source of that pollution, but regulators have little power to reduce the problems coming from farms. We have more from Dan Gunderson.

DAN GUNDERSON: Here's a key point about agriculture and clean water. Pollution that flows off of farm fields is not regulated. The Federal Clean Water Act regulates most pollution flowing out of industrial pipes, but pollution from normal farming activities is exempt. About 45 minutes south of Moorhead is a farm state Ag officials consider a model for improving water quality. Jared Nordick raises corn, soybeans, and wheat with his dad. A couple of years ago, he joined a new state Ag department water quality program.

JARED NORDICK: My dad said, oh, boy. Don't get involved with that. You never know what bureaucratic agency is going to get involved. Holy moly, they're going to clean you out.

DAN GUNDERSON: But by volunteering for the program, the environmental bureaucracy will leave him alone for 10 years. He's exempt from new regulations. Nordick considers himself a conservationist. He'd already taken steps to keep sediment out of a small stream and cut back on fertilizer. Both are major sources of water pollution. Nordick is 38, and he says taking care of this land is a matter of pride.

JARED NORDICK: I started farming this when I was 15 years old.

DAN GUNDERSON: We bumped across a field with a drainage system buried in the soil. The perforated pipes known as drain tiles are common in farm fields across the Midwest because they drain standing water from the surface and carry it away to a ditch or stream. But water from these tile drainage systems often carries a lot of potentially toxic nitrates from fertilizer. Nitrates are a big source of water pollution in parts of Minnesota. Two ducks fly up from a nearby stream as we get out of the truck.

JARED NORDICK: It is kind of peaceful out here.

DAN GUNDERSON: Nordick set aside an acre of cropland in the corner of this field to filter nitrates from tile water before it flows to the stream. The land will grow flowers for bees and butterflies instead of corn. Nordick pays 25% of the project cost. Government programs pay the rest.

JARED NORDICK: You know, we're not financially going to gain anything from that. So sometimes, you just got to do it just because it's in your heart as a conservationist.

DAN GUNDERSON: Nordick's farm is a model the Ag department wants other farmers to copy to help clean up dirty water. But here's the catch. Everything Jared Nordick is doing is because he wants to. It's all voluntary. And Nordick is in a tiny minority. 99.8% of Minnesota farms are not enrolled in the program. And even if every Minnesota farmer followed these practices, experts say it would only get the state about halfway to its water quality goal.

As one solution to farm pollution, the state moved to require grass buffers to protect streams and ditches. But fierce opposition from farm groups caused Governor Dayton to back off on mandating buffers for privately owned ditches. Jerry Zimmerman opposes the buffer requirement. He sees it as government interference with his farming operation.

JERRY ZIMMERMAN: If they can prove to me that it's actually polluting the water down in the ditch, I guess then OK, put the damn thing in. But don't just come and say we're going to take your land, and tough because it's the law.

DAN GUNDERSON: Zimmerman grows corn, beans, and sugar beets about an hour north of the Nordick Farm. And he disputes some of the practices Jared Nordick has embraced.

JERRY ZIMMERMAN: The government seems to be entirely against what farmers are trying to do as far as producing crops.

DAN GUNDERSON: Zimmerman is often fighting too much water on his crop land. Water that can delay planting, reduce harvest, and cost him money. He says decades ago, the government paid him to put ditches on all of his land.

JERRY ZIMMERMAN: Now that picture has changed entirely where it's more about this all should be potholes out here and swamps, so that the ducks can go through. It's a crazy world.

DAN GUNDERSON: Zimmerman says the farm is a business, and every decision comes back to the bottom line. But decisions on individual farms can impose financial and environmental costs far away. Polluted water from the Red River Valley contributes to a growing dead zone hundreds of miles away in Lake Winnipeg, the 10th largest freshwater lake in the world. And across Minnesota, cities spend a lot of money removing potentially harmful fertilizer runoff from drinking water.

I hop in Bruce Albright's truck on a blustery afternoon to check on a spot where the toothless nature of Ag water regulation is hurting water quality. Albright manages the Buffalo Red River Watershed District. It's his job to cajole and convince landowners to support conservation projects. We head down a gravel road a few miles from the Nordick Farm.

BRUCE ALBRIGHT: You and I have been here before, probably five, six years ago.

DAN GUNDERSON: It was the summer of 2011. Floodwaters had washed away so much soil, there was a twisting gash in the earth nearly a mile long and in spots several feet deep. Albright described it this way at the time.

BRUCE ALBRIGHT: It's taken even the clay away now, so that we're down to the rock.

DAN GUNDERSON: Since then, the farmer has refilled that big wash out with more dirt but has done nothing to stop future erosion, and no one can make him fix this problem.

BRUCE ALBRIGHT: When we have the next major flood, it will look like it did after the last flood.

DAN GUNDERSON: The farmer didn't answer calls seeking an explanation. Tons of soil from this field had moved downstream into the Buffalo River in places sediment 5-feet deep clogs the stream. And that riles Bruce Albright because taxpayers will have to pay to repair the stream.

BRUCE ALBRIGHT: There's a reason why we're taking out 5 foot of sediment downstream of this. That's your soil that's in there. You pay to take it out.

DAN GUNDERSON: But no one can force this farmer to cover the cost of his erosion. Across Minnesota farm country, soil loss is a big problem. USDA estimates water and wind erosion take about six tons per acre of soil every year. Think of it this way. Picture a line of 300 dump trucks loaded with dirt. That's the soil lost from 1 square mile of farmland every year.

To reduce erosion and pollution from farm fields, a lot of money is spent on conservation spread across an alphabet soup of federal and state programs. There's ASEP, EQIP, AWEP, WRP, CRP, GRP. Sorry, where was I? Oh, yeah. Conservation spending. The Environmental Working Group counted more than a billion federal dollars spent on conservation programs in Minnesota over a recent decade. And the Minnesota Clean Water Fund has spent about $500 million since 2010. But just asking farmers to do the right thing isn't working, says Steve Morse with the Minnesota Environmental Partnership.

STEVE MORSE: We've spent millions and millions of dollars, especially through agricultural conservation programs, but the problem is getting worse.

DAN GUNDERSON: Because federal conservation programs are voluntary, funding usually goes to willing farmers, and that's not always where the projects are most needed. Some local officials refer to federal programs as random acts of conservation. Federal officials say they are addressing the scattershot way money is spent. Nick Vera administers federal conservation programs in Minnesota for the USDA.

NICK VERA: Random acts of conservation, as they call it, is going more towards the wayside with a very targeted approach. And it is really data-driven.

DAN GUNDERSON: Minnesota agencies are also pursuing data-driven approaches to identifying the most pressing needs. The Board of Water and Soil Resources commissioned software that identifies areas where erosion is most likely. The software even gives an estimated cost for fixing the problem.

But that doesn't guarantee conservation projects, which can cost millions, will get funding. Minnesota authorities say they're beefing up state regulations on erosion, fertilizer use, and nitrate levels in streams. Even so, Assistant Ag Commissioner Matt Wohlman concedes Minnesota water quality goals are daunting.

MATT WOHLMAN: It's a big challenge. So it's not going to be a challenge that we will address overnight.

DAN GUNDERSON: For Minnesota policymakers, there's a lot at stake in managing the state's water quality, potentially billions of dollars and two competing fundamental imperatives. Wohlman puts it this way.

MATT WOHLMAN: The conversation that we have to have is, what's the right balance to keep agriculture strong in this state? It's a bedrock of our economy. But we also, as citizens, as farmers, we want clean water. Everybody does.

DAN GUNDERSON: Deciding who's responsible for cleaning up Ag pollution is at the heart of a major lawsuit in Iowa. That's up next in our series of water reports. Reporting on the environment, Dan Gunderson, Minnesota Public Radio News, Moorhead.


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