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Can Minnesota have clean water without regulating fertilizer?

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Nora Felton speaks at the podium during a public hearing.
Officials from the Minnesota Department of Agriculture listen during the first of a series of public hearings on Monday in Farmington, Minn.
Elizabeth Dunbar | MPR News

The first in a series of hearings about new state regulations on fertilizer use went on for two hours in a mostly empty auditorium at Robert Boeckman Middle School in Farmington, Minn., Monday. 

Minnesota farmers rely heavily on nitrogen fertilizer to grow the crops that help make agriculture a $75 billion industry. But the state has struggled to find the right balance between food and fuel production and clean water. 

This month, hearings over the Groundwater Protection Act, scheduled to take place across the state, will likely put that tension on full display.

Monday's public comment hearing was technical — and dry. People from conservation groups, which want more regulation, read statements. People from farm groups, which want less regulation, read statements. Most of the 30 or so people in the audience were there to take notes, or just listen. 

"Groundwater protection is important," Nora Felton, who was there to speak out against the proposed rule, told an administrative law judge and officials with the Minnesota Department of Agriculture, "but it can be achieved through other, mainly volunteer, measures." 

Nora Felton speaks against a proposed groundwater rule.
Nora Felton, of Northfield, Minn., speaks against the Minnesota Department of Agriculture's proposed Groundwater Protection Rule.
Elizabeth Dunbar | MPR News

And that's where the controversy comes in: Can Minnesota have clean water without forcing farmers to follow certain rules on when, where and how to apply fertilizers? 

The Minnesota Department of Agriculture says it can't. That's why officials are trying to implement a rule — the Groundwater Protection Act — to prevent farmers from applying fertilizer in the fall, and on frozen soil, in areas of the state where groundwater is vulnerable to contamination.

At issue is nitrate, which, among other things, can lead to a fatal condition in infants.

Felton and other farmers who spoke at Monday's hearing questioned the need for the new rule. They've already reduced nitrogen use on their own, they said.

"Minnesota farmers make intensive and genuine efforts to use best management practices on the landscape today," George Rehm, a retired expert on soil fertility, said at the hearing. 

Corn today brings in $5 less per bushel than it did six summers ago. And as they calculate expenses against dropping revenue, farmers say they have to be as efficient as possible with their fertilizer. So they're already using as little as they can, without hurting their yields.

"Keep in mind that nitrogen isn't free, and corn just barely hit $3," Felton said. "We have to have an economic return." 

And there's another element to this rule that farmers oppose: The timing. Felton pointed to the fact that this isn't the first time Gov. Mark Dayton's administration has forced certain practices on farmers. Farmers have also had to stop growing crops along waterways and ditches to create buffer strips aimed at filtering runoff as part of a law Dayton championed and signed in 2015. They say the state hasn't waited long enough to see if the buffer strips are working before piling on another rule.

"There hasn't been enough time to even get all the buffer strips in, let alone measure what kind of results can be accomplished by those buffer strips," she said. "Instead, we're heading headlong into a brand new rule."

Piling on or not, others look at Minnesota's farm economy and see a need to keep its negative consequences — namely, water contamination — in check. Some argue the regulations on fertilizer use should be even stricter to protect residents with private wells.

"A rural resident that is not in a public water service area should not be required to purchase bottled water or install a treatment system in order to have safe drinking water," said Leslie Everett, a retired University of Minnesota agronomist, who spoke in favor of fertilizer restrictions. 

Everett pointed out that some residents have already invested in advanced treatment systems to get rid of nitrates in their private wells.

And some conservation groups, like the Freshwater Society, told the officials that the proposed rule isn't stringent enough. 

"There is no clear suggestion that the regulations that will be put forth will indeed achieve clean drinking water," Brian Bohman, who spoke on behalf of the conservation group, said.

Four other public hearings are taking place this week and next in Stewartville, Worthington, St. Cloud and Park Rapids. 

The Minnesota Department of Agriculture hopes to finalize the fertilizer rule by the end of the year, but opponents are hoping a move by lawmakers could allow a new governor and Legislature to weigh in and block it.