More regulations are not needed, but more cooperation and more science will further water quality goals.

(A blog entry entitled “Enough is Enough” by Prof. George Rehm, director of Minnesota Discovery Farms, an on-farm water quality research project).

Minnesota is blessed with an abundance of natural resources and the large majority of its citizens, both urban and farmers, are deeply concerned about maintaining the quality of these resources. Therefore, it should come as no surprise that individuals, groups and/or organizations have proposed a wide variety of actions to maintain the quality of these resources–especially water. Many focus on activities and/or practices associated with farming.

Recognizing that the quality of the state’s natural resources is an issue now and has been for a number of years, I was curious about the number of statutes and/or rules that had been developed via legislative action in Minnesota. I found that a legislative analyst had prepared a summary in 2009. This report carries the title: “A Minnesota Lawmakers Guide to the Agri-Environmental Landscape”. There is a summary of 20 Minnesota statutes and executive rules that pertain to the relationship of farming to environmental issues.

They were divided into four categories: 1) manure, 2) cropping, 3) wetlands, and 4) general water quality. The number of statutes and/or rules by my count was 7, 9, 1, and 3 respectively. I’m not going to attempt a summary of each. They focused on a variety of farming practices ranging from chemigation to animal carcass disposal and everything in between. The report also provided a summary of six major Agri-Environmental regulations at the national level. It’s obvious that there are several statutes that pertain to farming practices and the environment.

As discussions about environmental quality, especially water quality, continue, farming practices frequently take center stage. Since farming practices are easily visible, they make good targets. There is also the FALSE perception that farmers are not at all concerned about environmental quality. With false perceptions and inaccurate information fixed in their minds, some have suggested that additional regulations of Minnesota are needed before improvements in environmental (especially water) quality can be achieved. Obviously, these individuals have not done their homework.

The suggestion for additional regulation is, in my opinion, a very narrow-minded and short-sighted approach to the issue. Clearly, the issues that revolve around the quality of the state’s waters will not be solved by a combative debate between the agricultural community and those who seek additional regulations. In fact, a combative stance only defeats any possibility of a reasonable solution. Further, a combative atmosphere does nothing more than create confusion.

Any improvement in the quality of Minnesota’s waters will be based on implementation of management practices based on sound science for which there is no substitute. Use of emotion and perception in support of a call for additional regulations will not solve any problems. One thing is clear to me: more regulations derived from emotion and perception are not needed in Minnesota. Several regulations that pertain to water quality are already in place. Enough is enough.

Our Take:
Some folks might wonder why we would talk about water quality in a blog about ethanol–hopefully we’re not belaboring the obvious to say that what impacts farms impacts farm-based energy. The public’s perception of water use and water impacts from farming becomes part of the discussion about whether ethanol is an appropriate choice as a transportation fuel.

Farmers do care about water quality and are at the forefront of efforts to reclaim the Minnesota River and other waters impacted by the whole range of human activities, including farming. Over the past two decades, thousands of Minnesota farmers have installed grassed waterways, grass filter buffer strips, sediment basins, rock-tile inlets for their drainage systems, not to mention restoring wildlife habitat and wetlands on their farms. The latest technologies gaining a foothold among farm operators are wood chip bioreactors that filter nutrients out of the water flowing from tile lines, and controlled drainage, which reduces erosion, sediment and nutrient transport and also makes more water available for crops at critical periods in the growth cycle.

So, if we are wondering which choice promotes better water quality, farm-based energy is the way to go. Do we need more offshore drilling, so we can risk more accidents that pour hundreds of millions of gallons of oil into the oceans? Do we need to give larger market share to the Canada tar sand oil producers, who are strip mining hundreds of square miles of northern forestland and using millions of gallons of groundwater to process the tar sands and capture the crude contained in them–resulting in lakes of toxic tailing refuse.

The choice is clear. Farm-based energy is the environmentally responsible way to go. When the public cooperates with farmers on projects like the Coalition for a Clean Minnesota River or CURE–Clean Up the River Environment–both organizations have many farm cooperators–then we all experience the benefits of a cleaner waterways with more abundant wildlife, more recreational opportunities and a natural treasure that we can pass on to the next generation. Working together is what brings this progress, whereas one-size-fits-all regulations will be counterproductive.

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