by CHRIS ROGERS
The state of Minnesota’s proposal for an in-depth study on agriculture and nitrate pollution in Southeast Minnesota groundwater got mixed reviews on Monday, when state agencies held a listening session in Red Wing. While some Minnesotans supported the proposal, many — including organizers from both environmental and agricultural groups — questioned whether such a study would lead to action.
“We want boots on the ground, not in St. Paul,” Winonan Margaret Walsh stated, summarizing her small group’s discussion on Monday.
The proposed study is called a generic environmental impact statement (GEIS), and it is essentially a big report that could take a couple years to complete. The focus of the study would be Southeast Minnesota’s nitrate pollution problem. Nitrate pollution is a by-product of nitrogen, and it can come from synthetic fertilizer, sewage plants, manure, and leaky septic tanks, among others. Nitrate pollution can affect surface water — degrading local trout streams and contributing to the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico — but because of its sink-hole-ridden karst geology, Southeast Minnesota is particularly vulnerable to groundwater contamination. In places, shallow aquifers that some rural communities and landowners rely on for drinking water have been contaminated with nitrates beyond federal health standards. Excess nitrates can make babies seriously ill, and there is evidence that it poses health risks for adults, too, according to the Minnesota Department of Health.
Former Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) Commissioner John Linc Stine first proposed a GEIS on nitrate pollution in karst country this winter. Stine requested that the Minnesota Environmental Quality Board (EQB) conduct a GEIS after he decided not to require further study on Catalpa Ag’s Fillmore County hog farm proposal and deny its permit to expand. Although Stine denied Catalpa Ag’s permit, some environmentalists were not satisfied and felt the farm should have been required to go through more intensive study because of the potential they saw for manure from the farm to contaminate groundwater with nitrates. Nitrate pollution is a serious problem, but it is bigger than any one farm, so the state should launch a comprehensive study on the issue, Stine recommended. Since Laura Bishop replaced Stine as commissioner in January, the MPCA has continued to call for a GEIS, saying that it would lead to a better understanding of the issue and could recommend policy changes to fix it. “I want [the GEIS] to be the platform that unifies all the parties to work together toward a common goal,” said fifth-generation Byron, Minn., farmer and caver Martin Larsen.
A GEIS would require funding from the legislature, and Governor Tim Walz originally proposed $2 million in the state’s upcoming budget to fund the entire study. However, Bishop announced that the Walz administration cut his budget proposal to just enough to fund scoping of the study — a process to decide what the GEIS should include — not the study itself. EQB Executive Director Will Sueffert explained that the cut was necessary because of new financial forecasts that required reductions across the board and that, if scoping is funded, the EQB would need more funding in a future legislative session to fund the actual GEIS.
If the legislature does fund GEIS scoping this spring, the EQB will decide in May whether to conduct the GEIS. If the EQB decides to go ahead with the GEIS, there will be opportunities for the public to weigh in on what its scope should be.
The EQB held Monday’s listening session to get a sense of whether Minnesotans would support a GEIS and if so, what they would hope to get out of it.
“I just feel having a GEIS is a no-brainer,” Chatfield, Minn., resident Kay Spangler said, adding that she was concerned about the effects of large-scale agriculture on local water quality.
“I’m hoping to understand better what the scale of the problem is, and secondly, what are the sources of the problem? How much is nitrogen fertilizer? How much is manure?” Houston County resident Brian Van Gorp said.
“I think we can all agree that we all want safe drinking water,” Wiscoy Township farmer Jean Mueller stated. “So how do we get to that? What can we put together on the issue rather than talking it death?”
“How can we get everyone to agree that we have a common problem — that there’s too much nitrate in the water, and that it’s mostly, in Southeast Minnesota, coming from agriculture?” University of Minnesota Professor and karst geology expert Calvin Alexander asked.
The Minneapolis-based environmental and sustainable agriculture organization Land Stewardship Project (LSP) urged members to attend Monday’s meeting, with LSP staff writing, “If history is any indicator, the GEIS will take years to complete and hundreds of hours of citizen engagement to ensure it isn’t coopted by corporate interests. Is it worth it?”
At the meeting, many attendees asked the same question. “What is really needed is an action-oriented approach,” not another study, one said.
Minnesota Corn Growers Association Senior Public Policy Director Amanda Bilek had a similar message for the EQB. The last time the state did a GEIS on agriculture in 2002, it led to some changes in feedlot rules, she noted. “We spent millions of dollars and tons of people’s time and that’s what we got as a result,” Bilek stated. Instead of another study, Minnesota should focus on funding existing programs and enforcing existing rules, she said. Minnesota should educate farmers on existing best management practices (BMPs), incentivize the use of those practices, and fund research into tomorrow’s BMPs, Bilek argued. “We definitely see cover crops as a major opportunity, one where there’s a lot of low-hanging fruit,” she said.
Walsh also discussed incentivizing BMPs, saying, “If we’re going to make people make changes, we want to fund them to make changes.”
“We need better enforcement of existing regulations,” Bilek stated, a sentiment many others echoed.
Bilek also pushed back against several meeting attendees’ statements that “factory farms” — as opposed to family farms — are to blame. “I hear a lot about corporate agriculture and I hear a lot about industrial agriculture. I don’t know what that means because the people I go to are families and maybe it’s multiple generations of a family that has incorporated, but I view that as a family,” she stated.
EQB Board member Julie Goehring said that in her home, in Northwest Minnesota, the issues affecting agriculture and water quality are different, but that across the board, people want to make a living and do the right thing. When given a chance to do both, most people take it, she stated.
Keep reading the Winona Post for more on this story.