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New program to protect water quality; details to be worked out

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Agricultural water quality
U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, Governor Mark Dayton and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Lisa Jackson, left to right, sign a memorandum of understanding to commit state and federal resources to Minnesota farmers to help improve water quality Tuesday, Jan. 17, 2012 at the State Capitol.
MPR Photo/Jennifer Simonson

Top officials from the Obama administration came to Minnesota Tuesday to announce a new program to encourage farmers to do more to protect water quality.

The "Minnesota Agricultural Water Quality Certification Program" agreed upon by state and federal officials would grant participating farmers an exemption from new environmental regulations for up to 10 years.

In return, farmers would have to conduct approved conservation practices, such as preserving buffer strips along waterways, conducting appropriate tillage and carefully controlling how much fertilizer they use.

Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, Environmental Protection Agency administrator Lisa P. Jackson and Gov. Mark Dayton signed an agreement to implement the program, to be created by the state and federal governments. It's part of increased attention being paid to pollution problems in local waters and the Gulf of Mexico.

The new effort would provide extra incentives to encourage farmers to do more to keep run-off from their fields out of the Minnesota and Mississippi Rivers.

Vilsack said 95 percent of farmers in the Upper Midwest are already doing some form of conservation work. He said a recent study shows progress.

"We've quantified less soil erosion, less phosphorus, less nitrogen going into rivers and streams," Vilsack said. "We also know from this evaluation that  if we can combine conservation techniques and technologies that we can have an even greater impact and effect."

With high corn prices in recent years, farmers have been planting more and more acres.  Rain washes soil and fertilizers into rivers.  In Minnesota, Lake Pepin is filling in with sediment, and in the Gulf of Mexico, a dead zone the size of Connecticut forms each year when nitrogen and phosphorus wash in from the Mississippi River.

The new program aims to reduce that destructive flow. Officials have not yet worked out the details but propose providing technical and financial help to any farmer in Minnesota who wants to receive certification that they're doing what's needed to keep the water clean. In return for their investments, they would be held harmless from new environmental regulations.

Both farmers and environmental activists express cautious optimism about how the new program could work.  

Farmers would welcome the new program as a way to refresh the sometimes combative conversation with environmental groups, said Warren Formo, executive director of the Minnesota Agricultural Water Resources Center. The agriculture industry group encourages research and shared information about water resources.

"If we can demonstrate to them this is a way we can show past progress and challenge to do even more, I think farmers will be interested in that conversation," Formo said. "If we can keep it as a positive, encouraging, challenging program, I think we'll attract a lot of farmers."

However, Formo said it's impossible to know at this point whether the program will work. His caution is amplified by many environmentalists, who are downright skeptical.

Steve Morse, executive director of the 80-member Minnesota Environmental Partnership, said the work done by farmers so far is rudimentary compared to what's needed.

"We're still scrambling around the two-yard line, counting inches, and we have 98 yards to go," Morse said. "Minnesotans expect agriculture to do its share to protect our water resources. So if there's certainty to producers, we have to have certainty that we're going to get cleaner water. That's not there."

Morse also said a 10-year exemption from new regulations is too long. He said cities and industry have their permits reviewed every five years, and there's always new information and technical improvements coming along.

The first step will be to set up a technical advisory committee to hash out the details. Officials say it will include farmers, commodity groups, conservation experts, and environmentalists.