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Major federal effort to curb farm-based water pollution starts in MN

January 23, 2012Patrick NunnallyRivers2

Big news last week:  the USDA, EPA and State of Minnesota signed an agreement to undertake a state-federal “regulatory certainty” program, with Minnesota to be the test case.  Josephine Marcotty of the Minneapolis Star Tribune covers the story here.

I’m not always a big fan of reading online comments, but in this case I think they are instructive.  The polarization of the issue is pretty evident.  Most commenters argue that the proposed plan is not enough, that it simply reinforces decades of “voluntary compliance” efforts that have measurably failed, and this this really isn’t a serious effort to address ag-based pollution in the Mississippi River.  Voices counter to that laud the noble farmer who feeds us all and much of the world besides, and who is picked on by his environmentalist haters in the cities.

I probably overstated that; see what reading comments online does to you?

Since the provisions of the plan have not yet been developed, it is hard to understand how anyone can determine with certainty exactly how the plan will work.  One new approach, and one that has people riled up considerably, is the effort to establish “regulatory certainty.”   As I understand it, this provision would allow farmers to set a plan in place to control sediment and nutrients (the two primary farm-based pollutants) in water coming off their property.  For a period of 10 years, then, as the plan and the “best practices that it embodied, were monitored, the farmer would be exempt from new regulations concerning water pollution from his property.  This is the “regulatory certainty”:  while farmers undertake best practices, they are “grandfathered in” under the regulations in place at the time.

The concern about this is obvious:  if some potent new carcinogen is identified during that year, and ways to keep it out of farm runoff are developed, farmers in the program would not have to alter their practices to adjust to the new information.  But I also understand the concern of farmers who feel that pollution control efforts are “moving targets” that in effect say “whatever you try isn’t good enough.”

Maybe the most important parts of the story are the concerted federal-state effort, and the fact that EPA and USDA are working together at a top level to try to achieve solutions.  If the “regulatory certainty” provision could be understood as a move from purely voluntary efforts toward regulation, then that might be seen as progress also.  It does seem certain that sweeping water pollution regulations on agriculture are not in the cards any time soon, at least in Minnesota, so some effort to “move the dial” is important and appropriate.

Mark Gorman’s always-informative Northeast-Midwest Institute Mississippi River Basin blog has great background and links to relevant federal documents and related efforts.  Look there for more on this policy shift.

This is big news; along with the advent of Asian carp into the Twin Cities perhaps some of the biggest policy news facing the Upper Mississippi at this time.  But as noted before, opinions vary on whether this is progress or not.  Add your voice:  send us a comment or get in touch with me at to talk about writing a guest post to this blog.


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  1. Mark GormanJanuary 24, 2012 at 7:05 am

    It will be interesting to watch how the details are worked out as the planning effort gets underway. Among some of the environmental organizations there are murmurings of cautious skepticism.

  2. Kent Cavender-BaresJanuary 24, 2012 at 9:00 am

    Thanks for a thoughtful piece, Pat. You’ve highlighted a potential downside of grandfathering farmers should some new chemical arise that needs better management.

    For me, a strategy that relies on best practices will require great monitoring of water quality. I wrote a piece last week on this issue that might be of interest

    Farmers and regulators alike should demand robust and sustained monitoring. Without it, it’d be kind of like following a map without looking out the window to ensure you’re still on course…

    Incidentally, I’ve been discussing this issue a lot lately with my brother, who is a CAFO dairy farmer in NY State. He’s fired up to make a difference.

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