DNR: Irrigation wells in Pineland Sands don’t need in-depth study

A person stands near cattle eating hay.
Tim Nolte looks out over his herd of cattle on his family's farm near Sebeka, Minn., in February. The Minnesota DNR decided this week that his proposal to irrigate some of his land for crops does not warrant an in-depth study.
Kirsti Marohn | MPR News file

The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources has decided a Wadena County farmer’s proposal to irrigate cropland in the Pineland Sands region of north-central Minnesota does not warrant an in-depth environmental study.

Tim Nolte wants to irrigate about 300 acres to grow hay and other crops, and graze his cattle. But the request got caught up in a larger debate over the conversion of forests to potato fields in Minnesota’s Pineland Sands region, which covers Wadena, Cass, Becker and Hubbard counties.

Some residents voiced concerns that adding more irrigation wells could add to nitrate contamination of groundwater, the major source of drinking water for the region. More than 10 percent of the private wells in some area townships have nitrate levels above the state health standard for drinking water.

The DNR ordered an environmental review — called an environmental assessment worksheet — before it would approve the irrigation permits after more than 100 people signed a petition requesting one. The environmental assessment worksheet discloses information about the potential environmental impacts of a project.

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However, the DNR determined that potential environmental effects from the proposed project are “minimal in nature” or can be managed through regulation, so a more costly, in-depth review — an environmental impact statement — is not needed.

In a statement, DNR Assistant Commissioner Jess Richards said the agency remains concerned about environmental effects linked to the loss of forest and increased irrigation in the Pineland Sands, and is evaluating options for addressing those concerns.

In 2019, the DNR requested funding from the Legislature to fund a broader study of the environmental impacts of the land changes happening in the Pineland Sands. State lawmakers didn’t approve the funding.

Now that the environmental review is complete, the DNR will decide whether to grant the water appropriation permit Nolte needs to irrigate the land.

The agency said Nolte would be required to manage nitrogen fertilizer and pesticides and make sure the pumping doesn’t impact nearby wells and surface waters.