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Continued: Anderson: SE Minnesota farmer thirsts for safe water

  • Article by: DENNIS ANDERSON , Star Tribune
  • Last update: September 30, 2013 - 7:24 AM

A stream fisherman — he’s president of the Minnesota Trout Association — Broberg also knows the region’s fragile cold-water fisheries are threatened by the presence of nitrate in southeast surface and subsurface waters, which often intermix.

• • •

In some ways, the region’s nitrate presence is a microcosm of the statewide conflict between agriculture and wildlife and fisheries.

As the region’s corn acres have increased (about 7,000 more acres were planted in corn in the southeast in 2011 vs. 2010), to satisfy domestic and export demands and supply the ethanol industry, CRP acres have been plowed up.

Among losers in the transition: fish, wildlife — ducks, pheasants and songbirds particularly — and the conservationists who value them.

Add to this, in the southeast, the contamination in some instances of water supplies for entire towns, and it would seem that additional land-use regulations would be warranted.

Not so.

Instead, the state Agriculture Department — which, like the Pollution Control Agency, the Department of Natural Resources and the Department of Health, is well aware of water contamination in the southeast — will attempt to convince farmers through a series of initiatives to monitor their fertilizer, manure and other nitrogen applications more carefully.

“Our plan will be a voluntary approach to encourage best management practices using incentives wherever they can be found,’’ said Agriculture Department fertilizer field unit supervisor Ron Struss. “In those areas where best management practices still won’t do the job, we’ll recommend alternative tools, such as the planting of alfalfa and other crops with lower nitrogen demand.’’

But Paul Wotzka, a hydrologist who was fired in 2007 from the Pollution Control Agency after speaking out about the presence of the herbicide Atrazine in state waters, and who lives in Weaver, Minn., in the southeast, says the region’s geology simply isn’t compatible with intensive row cropping.

“Whether you’re a trout fisherman down here, or a hunter or a farmer — no one wants to see this happening,’’ Wotzka said. “But the truth is, what’s being attempted here can’t be done. We can’t manage for groundwater, for people, for wildlife, for fish and also for intensive row-crop agriculture, not in this geologic region. It’s just not possible.’’

Broberg sees some hope in the Agriculture Department’s plan to sample significantly more wells statewide, and where contamination is widespread, to ensure area farmers are using best practices.

“As I understand it, the department is saying that where they find widespread well contamination they would encourage best management practices at first, and then, as necessary, require them,” he said.

“But that could take 20 years.’’

If so, Wotzka said, the region could see significantly more municipal well contaminations, and additional contamination of private wells like Broberg’s.

“This is the same approach that’s been in effect for 20 years already,’’ Wotzka said. “Essentially, the state is saying they’ll look the other way until fish are belly-up in the streams or until people are sick before they’ll actually do anything.’’

 

Dennis Anderson • danderson@startribune.com

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