Should voluntary water regulations for farmers be made mandatory?

-- Dave Peters, editor, Beneath the Surface, Minnesota's Pending Ground Water Challenge

Irrigation boom
An irrigation boom waits for summer on a central Minnesota farm. (Dan Haugen for MPR News.)

You can't talk about water use in Minnesota for long before you get around to talking about farming.

That's clear from two recent stories by MPR News.

One, by MPR News reporter Dan Gunderson, showed how increased irrigation and leaching of nitrates from fertilizers are forcing the city of Park Rapids to spend more to get good water for residents. The city has been forced to drill a deeper well to get away from the contamination, and the treatment required for that water is driving a typical family's water bill up $130 a year, Gunderson reported.

The other, by freelance reporter Dan Haugen, showed how irrigation wells in western Stearns County and eastern Pope County are drawing down water tables, at least seasonally. Irrigation pumping in the area known as the Bonanza Valley has grown much faster than in the rest of the state, and state Department of Natural Resources officials worry that's not sustainable.

A key point in the debate swirling around good farming practices that might reduce the amount of fertilizer reaching groundwater or local lakes and rivers is whether those practices can be something other than voluntary.

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Farmers are constantly evaluating their practices in an effort to minimize impacts on water quality while still providing the basic crops that make modern life better, doing whatever they can to keep the overall global footprint of your food supply as low as practically possible. -- Warren Formo, executive director, Minnesota Agricultural Water Resource Center

Farmers have made significant adjustments over the last 20 years that have reduced the risk of pesticides and fertilizers moving into ground and surface waters. This has been helped along by federal and state regulations.

Farmers are already required to follow federal requirements and label restrictions when applying pesticides. At the state level, the Minnesota Department of Agriculture has an extensive monitoring program looking for pesticides and develops voluntary best management practices. If levels worsen, the MDA has authority to impose further restrictions. These steps are outlined in our Pesticide Management Plan.

The Nitrogen Fertilizer Management Plan, which was released for comment in 2013 and is currently undergoing revisions, also sets up monitoring and development of management practices for nitrogen fertilizer to protect Minnesota’s ground and surface water.

As far as a tax is concerned, farmers and all pesticide and fertilizers users already pay fees to the state to support regulatory, remediation, and technical and research programs. These funds also support research to enhance efficiencies and nitrogen optimization. A “special tax” would be difficult and expensive to enforce, and at the end of the day does little to enhance Minnesota’s waters. -- Dave Frederickson, commissioner, Department of Agriculture

Today's Question: Should voluntary water regulations for farmers be made mandatory?