by CHRIS ROGERS
Minnesota is poised to regulate commercial nitrogen fertilizer for the first time ever next year. After over two years of debate, revisions, and political struggle, the Minnesota Department of Agriculture’s (MDA) nitrogen fertilizer rule is on track to be approved this May and take effect on January 1, 2020.
“Clean, safe, reliable water in our communities is everyone’s concern and everyone’s responsibility,” former Democratic Governor Mark Dayton said of the rule his administration first proposed in 2017. To reduce nitrate pollution in streams and well water, Minnesota has regulated how much manure farmers may apply to fields for years. The state has used many voluntary and educational programs to minimize pollution from synthetic nitrogen fertilizer, but Minnesota has never imposed hard and fast limits on how farmers use commercial fertilizer until now.
The nitrogen fertilizer rule has two parts. First, in areas of the state with vulnerable groundwater — including most of Southeast Minnesota — or where public wells are contaminated with nitrates, the rule would ban farmers from applying nitrogen fertilizer in the fall or when the ground is frozen. Second, the rule requires farmers in areas surrounding public wells — called drinking water supply management areas (DWSMAs) — to use nitrogen fertilizer best management practices (BMPs) if the nitrate pollution levels in those wells get close to the state health limit. That limit is 10 micrograms per liter, and the second part of the rule includes a system of progressive requirements that gets stricter as nitrate pollution in nearby wells worsens. When nitrate levels reach eight micrograms per liter and above, the MDA would order farmers to follow BMPs or other practices intended to reduce nitrogen pollution. Those orders could restrict farmers from applying more nitrogen than the University of Minnesota (U of M) guidelines recommend.
Both farmers and environmentalists criticized the proposed rule, with some saying that it was unnecessary regulation and others stating that it did not go far enough. The rule fails to protect drinking water for private well owners, Winonan Mary Ludwigson told the state officials. Earlier versions of the rule would have applied to private wells and surrounding farmland, but the MDA scrapped those provisions in response to criticism that it was too far-reaching and difficult to administer. “Many thousands of Minnesota families, especially in rural areas, rely on these private wells for their drinking water,” Ludwigson wrote. “Yet these families are going to remain at the mercy of more voluntary actions to protect their water — actions that have failed over the last generation. They will not receive even the modest drinking water protections that their neighbors in town will receive under this rule.”
“Minnesota farmers are doing an excellent job of managing nitrogen fertilizers without interferences and regulations from MDA,” retired nutrient management specialist George Rehm, of Cannon Falls, Minn., told the MDA. Farmers are already investing in BMPs and it is working, representatives from the Minnesota Corn Growers Association echoed. The best way to manage nitrogen varies so much from field to field that top-down regulations won’t help, Farmington, Minn., farmer Charles Louis wrote.
Republican lawmakers strove to block the rule last spring, unsuccessfully trying to pass bills that would have required legislative approval of the rule. Citing a seldom-used law, the Senate and House agricultural committees were able to prevent the MDA from enacting the rule until after the 2019 legislative session. If state Republicans had fared better in last fall’s election, they might have the power to stop or change the rule this session, but they lost control of the House and did not win the governorship. Now, with only the Senate, Republicans cannot unilaterally pass laws affecting the rule.
“As it sits, if we do nothing, it’ll likely go into effect,” Senator Mike Goggin (R-Red Wing) said. Goggin and other members of the Senate agriculture committee strongly opposed the rule last year, saying it would hurt farmers already facing financial pressures. As for this year, Goggin explained, “To be honest, we haven’t even talked about that in committee at all.” Goggin later added that the Senate committee plans to discuss the rule in the coming weeks. Asked whether there was anything the committee or the Senate could do about the rule, he responded, “At this point I don’t know what direction they want to go with this — whether we move forward with delaying the implement of the nitrogen rule somehow or working with the department to see where they’re at.”
To go into effect, the rule still needs to be signed by the MDA commissioner and the governor. The office of new Democratic Governor Tim Walz did not respond to a question about whether he would sign the rule before press time, but MDA officials said MDA Commissioner Thom Petersen would sign the rule when the legislative session ends in May. In his last job, Petersen lobbied state and federal lawmakers for the Minnesota Farmers Union (MFU) and said last year that the MDA’s revisions to the proposed rule alleviated MFU members’ concerns. The MFU supports the rule. Walz chose Petersen to lead the MDA.