Achieving the ambitious goal of ensuring that all of Minnesota’s waterways are swimmable and fishable — not just some of them, as is the case now — will require teamwork between the state’s passionate environmental advocates and its powerful agricultural industry.
Unfortunately, these two influential lobbies often have been at loggerheads when it comes to water quality. The reason: Cleaning up lakes and rivers will require changes in long-standing agricultural practices to reduce industry runoff, a significant source of water pollution in Minnesota.
But the 2016 legislative session provided a welcome example of cooperation between the two lobbies on an important water quality bill that has been sent to Gov. Mark Dayton for his signature. This week’s announcement from Land O’Lakes, a major agricultural cooperative that said it would work to expand farmers’ participation in a voluntary conservation program, also inspires hope that more common ground can be found.
The legislation that brought the two sides together this session is known as the “Working Lands Restoration Program.” The program, which passed in both the House and the Senate, will create a crop incentive program to encourage and reward farmers who plant crops, such as switch grass, that fight pollution naturally by reducing agricultural runoff. The program laudably takes a market-based rather than a regulatory approach to encourage farmers to plant these crops. Such incentives also could prove to be an economic boon, with new biofuels technology looking to locate facilities in areas where there is a steady supply of these alternative crops. That the program was supported by the Minnesota Corn Growers Association, as well as the Friends of the Mississippi River, the Minnesota Environmental Partnership and the state’s biofuels coalition, underscores how much common ground smart policymaking can plow.
Another important program that passed this year is known as “Forever Green.” This legislation will complement the Working Lands program by jump-starting research at the University of Minnesota to improve cover crops and perennials that can be grown in Minnesota.
Dayton, who has made water quality a signature issue, merits credit for his leadership on this critical issue, setting the foundation for programs like these to develop and gain support. He and lawmakers still have work to do, however.
The failed bonding bill contained funding for many water quality and infrastructure investments. Among them: critical upgrades to aging municipal drinking water and wastewater systems, many of which are in rural Minnesota. A St. Louis River estuary cleanup is also regrettably left in limbo. Minnesota will be unable to leverage millions in federal matching dollars unless the bonding legislation can be passed in a special session. Neither Dayton nor lawmakers should let that opportunity wash away.