Groundwater is a critical resource for Minnesota - it feeds our streams, fills our lakes and is a (mostly) clean and reliable source of drinking water for about 75% of the population. Many areas have localized problems, some with natural contaminants like arsenic, man-made toxics from unsound disposal of industrial wastes and many areas with nitrate contamination at levels that are of concern. Here's a link to a video from an LWV UMRR meeting last October where Chris Parthun from the Minnesota Department of Health describes the problems with nitrate contamination in our water.
In 1989, the Minnesota Legislature passed a law aimed at increasing protection of Minnesota's groundwater resources. Click here to watch a video detailing Minnesota's 1989 Groundwater Protection Act. This act included a set of tiered actions to be taken to address everyday sources of groundwater contamination not addressed by programs like Superfund or the Leaking Underground Storage Tank program. This Act also established a groundwater protection goal of preventing degradation and reducing pollution where is has already occured.
One area where groundwater protection is particularly thorny is in agricultural areas, where nitrate contamination is affecting both public and private wells, and the levels are rising. As laid out in the Groundwater Protection Act, the Minnesota Department of Agriculture is responsible for developing and administering programs and laws to address this. This has not been an easy course, and the twists and turns abound. This link leads to a blog post on the Loon Commons Blog by Matt Doll of the Minnesota Environmental Partnership. Here, Matt describes the rule that the Minnesota Department of Agriculture proposed to address the growing problem of nitrate in groundwater.
The Minnesota Legislature introduced bills to stop this rule. LWV UMRR Chair Gretchen Sabel testified in both the House and Senate, on behalf of LWV Minnesota, in opposition to these bills. This link will take you to a copy of her testimony in the House. In the end, the bills were passed and Governor Dayton vetoed it. The Ag Committees in both houses have taken steps to use an administrative procedure to further slow the rule. Here's another blog post from Matt Doll on the topic.
The saga continues... the Minnesota Department of Agriculture is now in the process of finalizing the rule. Public comment will be taken until August 15 - read about it here. And comment! Clean water is important for all of us in the Upper Mississippi - Minnesota is the headwaters state, and this rule is just one part of the solution.
THE FARM BILL IS A major legislative package that deals with U.S. Department of Agriculture programs ranging from food safety, trade, nutrition support and subsidies for farmers. Similar bills have been passed approximately every five years since 1933. The active version of the law, passed in 2014, expires on Sept. 30. (For more information on the content of the Farm Bill, read our blog post here.)
(Photo from Minneapolis Star Tribune Dec 17, 2017.
The 2018 Farm Bill is in the works. LWV UMRR is following this progress, and has signed on to letters urging Congress to improve the conservation titles in the Bill. This bill is at a pivotal stage now - read about it here on the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition's blog. It's a good read, detailed and with clear explanations.
Timing is critical - conference committee members have been assigned and it is expected that they will meet before the August recess, with a goal of getting a bill to the President for signature before the end of the Federal fiscal year on September 30.
Algae stinks. It clogs up waterways and secretes toxins that are dangerous to humans and our pets. It’s also a vital part of ecosystems, a necessary base of the food chain. When nutrient pollution, particularly phosphorus, increases in a water body, excessive algae growth occurs, which results in stinky, dangerous problems.
Algae blooms form dense mats on lakes, rivers and streams, affecting drinking water sources and water recreation. An 2014 algae bloom in Toledo, Ohio, (shown above) shut down their water supply, leaving the city of more than 400,000 people without water for several days. Circle of Blue, a website devoted to water issues, provides background information on toxic algae blooms. We wrote about that in this blog post in January 2017.
Rivers and streams in Wisconsin are affected, too. At the LWV UMRR Annual Meeting in May, 2017, Kim Wright from Midwest Environmental Advocates talked about excessive algae that chokes the Red Cedar River in Menomonie –read about what she said and see the video of Kim’s presentation here.
Thanks to the 2007 and 2016 “Pontoons and Politics” efforts of the Petenwell and Castle Rock Stewards an advocacy group in central Wisconsin, the Wisconsin Legislature appropriated funds for the Department of Natural Resources to develop a plan to address nutrient pollution, and the resulting algae blooms, on the river. This article from the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel provides more information on this work, as well as a video on the dangers of blue green algae.
This plan is now open for public comment. It calls for a significant reduction of phosphorus to the Wisconsin River, to be achieved over time. The DNR website for this project provides copies of the plan and information on how to comment. This work is mandated by Clean Water Act provisions requiring states to list water bodies whose use is impaired by pollution, detail its sources and suggest limits on future pollution.
On January 20, 2018, people gathered in Boscobel, Wisconsin to talk and learn about the unique geology of the Driftless area,* and how this fragility requires extra protection. The main focus of this session was the advent of large animal feeding operations in the Driftless area and what these can mean to water resources. The sessions at this workshop were video'ed by Daniel Folkman, who has made them available to the public on his YouTube feed. Thanks, Daniel, for your work!
Blog editor's note: This workshop was aimed at opposing the expansion of large animal agriculture in the Driftless area. The talks are not balanced by other viewpoints, and do not necessarily represent the views of LWV Upper Mississippi River Region. We present this here to share this information with our audience. The purpose of LWV Upper Mississippi River Region is to protect and enhance water quality in the Mississippi River, it's tributaries and groundwater in the watershed. We believe that ALL activities in the watershed should be protective of this precious resource.
*The Driftless area is found where Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa and Illinois intersect. Here, deep valleys and steep slopes make the landscape dramatically different from other Midwestern vistas. This area was not covered by glaciers like the rest of the region, so the soil is much more shallow and bedrock is exposed in many areas. Water resources are abundant here, both surface and groundwater, but the shallow soil means that there is little protection for the water from land surface activities. The Mississippi River is the heart of this region, flowing from north to south. This Wikipedia reference provides a more detail on this region.
Choices journal focuses on water quality and ecosystem health in the Mississippi River Basin, with a keen eye on agricultural policy. Their December issue includes four papers presented at a recent conference that examine the political and institutional factors that have governed the design of conservation programs in the US, the design flaws that limit the effectiveness of these programs and the role that emerging technologies can play in leading to science-based conservation policy design.
In his paper, Nexus between Food, Energy and Ecosystem Services in the Mississippi River Basin: Policy Implications and Challenges Madhu Khanna says, “One of the great challenges for the US Corn Belt is increasing the productivity of food and fuel production while reducing nutrient runoff, which is a key contributor to hypoxia in the Gulf of Mexico. The Mississippi–Atchafalya River Basin (MARB) drains about 41% of the conterminous United States and includes the Corn Belt, which is one of the most productive farming regions in the world. The hypoxic zone (Dead Zone) in the Gulf is the second largest in the world; in the summer of 2017 it was equal in size to the state of New Jersey, the largest extent ever recorded. Excess nutrient run-off generated by tillage and fertilizer-intensive agricultural and livestock production in the MARB is estimated to contribute about 80% of dissolved inorganic nitrogen (N) and more than 60% of delivered phosphorus (P) in the Gulf of Mexico (White et al., 2014). The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (2007) estimates that a 45% reduction in both N and P loadings from the MARB relative to the 1980–1996 average annual level is needed to achieve desired reductions in the size of the hypoxic zone.
Citing various sources, this paper makes the point that expanded agricultural use of the land not only impacts water quality but increases greenhouse gas emissions (due to loss of carbon storage) and reduces habitat needed for wildlife and pollinators, many of which are natural enemies of agricultural pests. Studies found that the expansion of corn production for ethanol has contributed to worsening the dead zone in the Gulf. Changing farming practices will be expensive, both in the cost of implementing new practices and in the loss of revenue to farmers. This paper cites analysis by Rabotyagov (2014), stating that the “lowest-cost strategy for achieving the hypoxia goal [reducing the dead zone in the Gulf] is estimated to cost approximately $2.7 billion per year in terms of lost profitability”. The upfront costs include obtaining equipment, machinery and establishing alternative perennial crops are considerable.
In CBO Baseline and the Potential for Conflicts by Expanding CRP, Jonathan Coppess looks at funding constraints in the coming Farm Bill. The Agriculture Act of 2014 (Federal Farm Bill) is the most important piece of legislation that affects farm and food policy in the US. Title 2 of this act includes eleven different programs aimed at conservation and water quality improvement, the largest of which are the Environmental Quality Improvement Program (EQIP), Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP), Regional Conservation Partners Program (RCPP), Agricultural Conservation Easement Program (ACEP), and Conservation Technology Assistance (CTA). Each program has a specific focus and target, and their coordination is not ideal.
Expanding these programs, or adding new programs, will take funds from other programs under current budget disciplines being followed by the US Congress, so the stakes are high. South Dakota Senator John Thune, has proposed an alternative to traditional CRP enrollment.
“Called the Soil Health and Income Protection Program (SHIPP), his proposal would provide for short-term (3–5 years) reserved acres with a maximum of 15% of the cropland on a farm (Thune, 2017; S.499, 2017). The shorter contract period would make the program more responsive to market conditions. In addition, it permits some harvesting activities on the acres while under contract. From a baseline perspective, the proposal is designed to reduce the costs of enrolling acres. For one, it would limit rental payments to 50% of the average rental rate for the county. Senator Thune’s proposal has some historical precedent as well. Early farm bills used conservation rental payments to rent land out of production for a single crop year, but this policy was part of controversial efforts to control production through limiting acres.”
In his article “Policy Reforms Needed for Better Water Quality and Lower Pollution Control Costs”, James Shortle points out inefficiencies in our current conservation programs. He “found that prioritizing practices based on their cost-effectiveness along with crude spatial targeting could reduce annualized costs of achieving required agricultural N, P load allocations across the [Chesapeake Bay] watershed state by 27% to 80%... “ He also advocates a fuller blending of approaches for managing point and nonpoint source pollution, specifically through a more robust trading program. Trading pollution credits allows for spending on practices that result in greater pollution reduction for less cost.
The final article in this series is “Conservation Programs Can Accomplish More with Less by Improving Cost-Effectiveness” by Marc O. Ribaudo. One way that more can be accomplished with less is through performance-based payments, where actual reductions, rather than theoretical reductions based on changes in practices, are rewarded with payments. Ribaudo also encourages the use of community conservation principles. “Community conservation” engages all farmers in an impaired watershed to work on solutions in a group setting. Community recognition of environmental performance and the demonstration of innovativeness and entrepreneurship in managing a farm could increase conservation-oriented thinking on the part of those who were traditionally motivated primarily by profit. LWV UMRR and other groups providing outreach could have a role in this.
Choices, the magazine of food, farms and resource use, is the principal outreach vehicle of the Agricultural & Applied Economics Association.
by Beth Baransky, Project Coordinator, LWV Jo Daviess County remote water quality sensing project
The U.S. EPA, in partnership with the Department of Agriculture, National Institute of Standards and Technology, United States Geological Survey, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, put forth a challenge to submit proposals for the deployment of low-cost (less than $15,000) continuous nutrient sensors to address an important nutrient pollution water quality problem.
The League of Women Voters of Jo Daviess County in Illinois (LWV-JDC) has been actively seeking water quality data for several years in order to increase our local knowledge. The ultimate goal is to achieve science-based stewardship of the water resources in our area. The Nutrient Sensor Action Challenge fit in well with the League's efforts. We submitted a proposal for the challenge describing the installation of two sensors, one each at the top and bottom of the Lower Galena River subwatershed to gather continuous data on nitrate levels in this portion of the river. Sam Panno, Senior Geochemist at the Illinois State Geological Survey; Walt Kelly, Groundwater Science Section Head at the Illinois State Water Survey; and Beth Baranski, Project Coordinator for the League of Women Voters of Jo Daviess County were the team members on the proposal.
Having been selected as one of the winners of the challenge, in part because “The technical review panel determined that your submission could help better inform decision-making for nutrient reduction in our nation’s waterways,” the League will receive $10,000 in prize money. We’ve been told we can spend the prize money on a trip to Hawaii if we want, but - as tempting as that is - we’re thinking about how best to use the funds to advance water resource management work in the area. This prize money is being awarded for Stage 1 of the challenge, and consideration is now being given to competing in Stage 2 as well, which would involve actual sensor deployment.
As part of the LWV Lake Michigan annual meeting at the State of Lake Michigan conference in Green Bay Nov 7-9, LWV UMRR board member Judy Beck (LWV Glenview, IL) toured demonstration farms in Northeastern Wisconsin’s Silver Creek watershed. These farms are employing best management practices to reduce the amount of phosphorus and sediment that is lost from their farms into Green Bay, a water body with a large ‘dead zone’. Following is the writeup from that tour, which documents very promising results from this work.
Supported by funding from the Great Lakes Restoration Imitative (GLRI), the US Geological Survey (USGS) has partners with four Fox Demo Farms to measure sediment and nutrient loss in surface and sub-surfaces runoff at edge-of-field (EOF) monitoring sites. Based on preliminary data collected by the USGS, monitoring at one farm in the project, Brickstead Dairy’s monitoring site in the Silver Creek watershed shows that there have been significant reductions in nutrient and sediment loss. Read more about the project at this link.
The site was monitored in crop years 2014, 2015 and 2016. This monitoring showed that an average of 2000 lb/acre of sediment and nearly 4 lb/acre of phosphorus were measured in surface runoff. In the fall of 2016, cover crops were planted and then in 2017 no-till farming practices were employed.
For water year 2017 to date (Oct 1, 2016 to Sept 19, 2017) sediment losses were about 1000 lb/acre. This is seen as an indication that the switch to no-till with cover crops could be reducing sediment losses. Since about 80% of the phosphorus lost from ‘typical’ soils in the area using ‘typical’ farming practices is tied in with the sediment, reducing sediment loss will also reduce the loss of phosphorus. Phosphorus is the limiting element in Green Bay – the algae that cause the dead zone need phosphorus to multiply. For a very graphic depiction of runoff, check this video.
Left, tillage radishes used as cover crop.
By planting cover crops and using no-till farming practices, producers benefit from having to spend fewer hours in the field and find cost savings due to reduced cost of farming inputs (fuel, equipment, fertilizers and pesticides). Soil health is also improved with increased water infiltration rates, less erosion and improved soil biology. By limiting sediment loss, phosphorus discharge to Green Bay is reduced and less algae growth will take place, a mutually-beneficial win-win for the environment and the farmers’ bottom line.
This two-day "Celebrate the Headwaters" event (described here) began on Sunday, October 1, with us taking the last cruise of the season with Coborn's Lake Itasca tours. We visited and talked about water issues with LWV member and the public on the cruise, then met at the Headwaters for a group photo. On Monday, we held our Board meeting in the morning and at noon were joined by speakers from the Minnesota Department of Health and the nonprofit "Toxic Taters" to talk about nitrate in drinking water. You can watch the education part of the program here. - we recorded it and live-streamed through Facebook Live.
Katie DeSchane was on hand to talk about the work that Toxic Taters is doing in the Park Rapids area. Park Rapids, MN, is the city closest to the Headwaters. Changes in land use, where former tree plantations are being cut and repurposed for irrigated potato farming, is a growing concern. Kathie's group works to raise public awareness of the issue and to help people take action to protect their water supplies. Here are some links: Minnesota Department of Health Source Water Protection; Toxic Taters, and Friends of the Mississippi Headwaters. This last group had a table at our meeting with information on their work on pipelines - read about it in this blog post on the LWV UMRR website.
On September 8, LWV UMRR Vice-president Lonni McCauley attended the Cover Crop and Soil Health Learning Tour put on by the University of Minnesota in Rushmore in southwestern Minnesota. The tour included water infiltration demonstrations, hands-on activities, cover crop by herbicide demonstrations, research updates, a farmer panel, soil-root pit, and equipment demonstrations. Speakers at the session included: Shannon Osborne, USDA-ARS; Jennifer Hahn, Pheasants Forever; Brian Christianson, USDA-NRCS; John Shea, Nobles Co. SWCD; and Scotty Wells, Gregg Johnson, Jodi DeJong-Hughes, Liz Stahl, Randy Pepin, and Dan Raskin, U of MN Extension. The farmer panel was made up of Bruce Brunk, Bryan Bielger, and Mike Erbes.
Lonni learned that cover crop adoption in Minnesota is not widespread – only 2% of farm land in Minnesota is in cover crops at this time. The University researchers are promoting strip-tilling, which is a hybrid tillage technique between no-till and clear-till. It leaves a 5-inch plowed furrow next to a 7-inch wide cover crop. This technique serves to have ease of planting in the plowed strip and also the advantage of a cover crop to stop soil erosion and water/nutrient loss.
A three-farmer panel discussed their experiences and successes with cover crops. All three farmer panelists indicated they began farming with their dads. They indicated it was hard to persuade their dads to change to cover crops and less than clear-till farming. Only their increased yields on test plots convinced them. The average age of farmers in Minnesota is 57. They are reluctant to change lifelong farming habits.
The demonstration plots show that cover crops can lead to significant improvement in water retention and soil health. The host farmer said his fields now drain almost no water into the culvert in the ditch adjacent to his fields. In this picture, you see Jodi DeJong-Hughes, University of Minnesota Extension, demonstrate four-foot topsoil and the health of the soil after only three years of cover crop/low till practice.
Lonni also reported that alfalfa pellets are being introduced by the U of M as fish food. They take the place of fish-based pellets which are depleting fish populations in the oceans. This will be a boon to the inland fish pond factories springing up in the country and another market for alfalfa. Alfalfa is a perennial crop that requires less inputs and retains soils and water on the farm field.
This program is supported in part from a Conservation Innovation Grant from the USDA-Natural Resource Conservation Service and funding from MN North Central Region-Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education. You can read more about this program here.
Thanks to Lonni for attending this session and assisting with this blog post!
Guest Post by Beth Baranski, LWV Jo Daviess County Illinois
The League of Women Voters' structure and approach allow members to play an instrumental role in efforts to address complex issues. Organized at the local, state, regional, and national levels, League efforts and resources can be scaled up and down as appropriate. With a formal process for studying issues important to voters and coming to consensus before taking action, the League has become widely respected for its non-partisan, fact-based, educational approach.
In Jo Daviess County, Illinois, the local chapter of the League of Women Voters (LWV-JDC) is creating a model that showcases how "The League Way" is working with residents in this rural area on the locally controversial, nationally important, and globally critical topic of water resource management. Here are some highlights:
And the work continues...
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