Agriculture needs to take the lead in managing pollutants

Minnesota is fortunate to have an abundance of water. It is also the third largest corn-producing state in the country.

That creates a great conflict when trying to balance crop production with the use of fertilizers and pesticides.

“Too much nitrogen and phosphorus in the water causes algae to grow faster than ecosystems can handle. Significant increases in algae harm water quality, food resources and habitats, and decrease the oxygen that fish and other aquatic life need to survive,” according to the federal Environmental Protection Agency.

Excessive nitrogen can harm the health of forests, soils and waterways, according to the EPA.

Agricultural runoff is among the leading causes of water pollution. Phosphorus and nitrates become part of sediment and runoff that contaminates local waterways. This is called non-point contamination.

As it flows through our agriculture communities, runoff collects and transports soil, pesticides, fertilizer and other pollutants. This water drains directly into nearby creeks, streams and rivers.

The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency has estimated that non-point sources account for as much as 86 percent of water pollution in the state.

The No. 1 problem regarding non-point pollution of our water is the runoff of excess nutrients from fertilizers used in agriculture operations, said Dr. Deb Swackhamer, recently retired co-director of the Water Resource Center at the University of Minnesota, when meeting recently with the ECM Editorial Board.

Controlling phosphorus is an important part of protecting Minnesota’s water resources. Upgraded wastewater treatment facilities have reduced phosphorus levels considerably since 2000, Swackhamer said. The annual phosphorus load has been reduced by 67 percent since 2000, according to the MPCA.

In 2013 the MPCA tested 50,000 water samples in a study of the sources of surface water pollution. The results determined that 73 percent of the elevated nitrate levels come from cropland, primarily through agricultural drainage systems below cropped fields and by nitrate pollution leaching into groundwater, and then moving underground until it reaches surface water.

Nitrates have leached into many private wells, causing damage to the environment. Babies are particularly susceptible to nitrogen exposure, which can decrease oxygen levels and lead to skin discoloration and death.

In Randall, near Little Falls, the city closed one of its two wells due to the presence of elevated nitrates. The water contamination was attributed to nitrogen fertilizer leaching into groundwater. To address the problem, the city located a site for a new well.

In Mille Lacs County near Milaca, Estes Brook and the West Branch of the Rum River have been found to be impaired and do not meet clean water standards. On June 15, county officials stated that water quality monitoring has found excess nutrients and are contaminated with E.coli. There may be health risks from recreation in these streams. A June 29 town meeting has been scheduled to address the issue.

So what can we do to decrease the threat of non-point water pollution?

“Agriculture is the hardest one to crack,” Swackhamer said.

The MPCA stated in a June 2013 water study that significant reductions in nitrogen pollution are possible.

The report suggested cropland drainage system changes that would slow, filter or divert the collected nitrogen that would otherwise head directly into rivers, streams or groundwater.

It also suggested increasing the use of complementary cover crops in corn and soybean fields and shifting some cropland away from row crops to perennial crops that provide continual ground cover.

The 2015 buffer initiative signed into law by Gov. Mark Dayton is also a good step. We support the law that establishes vegetative buffers of 50 feet along public waters (lakes, rivers, and streams), and 16.5 feet along public ditch systems. Buffers along public waters are required by November 2017; while buffers along public ditch systems are required by November 2018.

More agricultural producers could learn from leaders in their own industry and implement additional no-till, reduced tillage or precision agriculture methods. Implementing variable rate applications of fertilizers and pesticides will further protect water quality.

We also believe more agricultural producers should enroll in the Minnesota Ag Water Quality Certification Program, a voluntary opportunity to take the lead in using conservation practices that protect our water.

Offered through the Minnesota Department of Agriculture, the program allows producers to get hands-on assistance from the experts from the Soil and Water Conservation Districts in adopting best management practices for their farmland to keep water clean. Producers who participate are rewarded with priority status for on-farm technical assistance and financial help.

Ruth Hruby, a farmer from Montgomery, Minnesota, who speaks nationally on conservation issues, stated in February for the Center for Rural Affairs, that farmers need to remember that not only their neighbors – but people downstream on the rivers and streams in their communities – count on them to preserve the quality of the water that runs across their farms. They are stewards not only of the land, but of the water.

We agree. Taking care to manage potential pollutants leaching into the soil will make for a stronger future for the millions of people and businesses who rely on clean water from our rivers, lakes and streams. – An opinion of the ECM Editorial Board.

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