After seven years of statewide discussions regarding a nitrogen fertilizer management plan, Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton and Ag Commissioner Dave Frederickson last week announced a two-part groundwater protection proposal. It would put rules in place for fall N applications and for areas where drinking water supplies have high nitrate levels.
Dayton and Frederickson said the proposal was based on the input of more than 1,500 landowners and state residents who attended 17 public meetings last year and responded to a first draft of the plan.
According to MDA and the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, nitrate is one of the most common contaminants in Minnesota's groundwater. Nitrate is a compound that naturally occurs and has many human-made sources, including sewage treatment systems, ag fertilizer and manure storage.
Nitrate is found in lakes, rivers and groundwater across Minnesota. MDA says consuming too much nitrate can affect how blood carries oxygen and can cause methemoglobinemia, also known as blue baby syndrome.
“This proposal responds to what we heard,” Frederickson said at a press conference March 6. “It balances the needs of farmers and modern agricultural production, with the need of all Minnesotans to have safe drinking water.”
Part one of the groundwater protection proposal deals with fertilizer application during the fall. Restricted areas under the proposal include porous soils, such as coarse-textured soil, karst and shallow bedrock, which have the capacity to leach greater volumes of water during the fall season. Central and southeastern Minnesota would be affected by the fall N rule — mostly regions and watersheds that follow or drain into the Mississippi River. Fall fertilizer application also would be restricted in designated drinking water supply management areas where the nitrate level exceeds 5.4 milligrams per liter.
Minnesota Department of Agriculture
The areas in purple are regions in Minnesota where farmers will not be allowed to fall-apply nitrogen according to a groundwater protection proposal released by Gov. Mark Dayton and the Minnesota Department of Agriculture.
Exceptions to the fertilizer application requirements would be crops that require fall N, such as winter grains, grass seed and cover crops. Areas with low leaching potential based on precipitation, evapotranspiration rates and a short spring planting season would be exempt, as would counties with less than 3% of the land in row crops (northeast Minnesota and Ramsey County).
Part two covers voluntary and mandatory actions to be taken when elevated nitrate levels are found in public drinking water. Under these scenarios, farmers are either encouraged or required to follow best management practices to reduce nitrate levels in water, depending on nitrate concentrations.
Frederickson noted that major changes were made after reviewing comments from farmers, landowners and others who worked with the department on the fertilizer rule. In addition to the fall N application exceptions noted above, other revisions include:
• Existing soil maps would be used to identify vulnerable areas. Before, MDA was using an instrument called KSAT, which measures how quickly water moves through soil, to identify vulnerable areas.
• Regulation in designated drinking water supply management areas would occur when nitrates are increasing even if BMPs are in place.
• If BMPs have been mandated and implemented, yet nitrate concentrations continue to increase or remain high, the ag commissioner, in consultation with local advisory teams, could direct landowners to implement additional practices beyond BMPs to address high nitrate levels.
• If progress is underway in an area, the ag commissioner could grant a one-year exemption before moving it into the next level of regulation.
MDA expects the draft rule to be published in mid-to-late May, followed by a formal 30-day public comment period. Public hearings will be held on the draft rule this summer. Come fall, the Office of Administrative Hearings reviews the comments and gives MDA 180 days to make revisions to the groundwater protection rule based on the administrative law judge and public hearings.
By December, MDA expects to submit the final groundwater protection rule to Office of Administrative Hearings, the Office of the Revisor of Statutes and to the governor to be signed into law.
Reaction to the announcement from farm groups ranged from “Let’s wait and see” to disappointment.
Minnesota Farm Bureau Federation, Minnesota Farmers Union and Minnesota Corn Growers Association leaders said they are waiting for the actual rule to be published in May before they will begin formally commenting on it.
“MFU was pleased to see areas removed from northwest Minnesota from the draft of the draft that came out last summer,” said Thom Petersen, MFU government relations director.” We will be gathering input from our members once the official draft is published.”
Both MFB President Kevin Paap and MCGA President Kirby Hettver noted that their membership will review the rule when it comes out and will comment as the process moves along.
Mike Petefish, president of the Minnesota Soybean Growers Association, said his organization was disappointed with Dayton and MDA's attempt to rebrand the nitrogen fertilizer rule as a groundwater protection rule.
“MSGA was one of the organizations that commented on the rule, and we appreciate the work done by MDA to modify the rule based on the concerns that they heard. Many of the changes are steps in the right direction," Petefish said in a press release. “However, the changes announced do not address some of the biggest concerns MSGA has with the N fertilizer rule.”
MSGA believes the rule does little to protect residents against methemoglobinemia, which hasn't been documented in the state since 1980, as it is based on a private well testing regime rather than one based on dedicated monitoring wells.
Petefish said MSGA has concerns about the proposed definition of “nitrogen fertilizer,” calling it overly broad and inclusive. He said the definition should be more in accordance with the Groundwater Protection Act.
“The rule shouldn’t harm Minnesota’s farmers based on faulty well tests or prior nitrogen fertilizer practices,” he said.
Two Minnesota lawmakers also expressed concern about the proposal.
House Agriculture Finance Chairman Rod Hamilton, R-Mountain Lake, and House Agriculture Policy Chairman Paul Anderson, R-Starbuck, issued a statement following the announcement, calling it “a reactionary rebranding of a vastly unpopular rule released in 2017.”
“Farmers are already using less nitrogen than they have in the past, and this type of rulemaking only results in more unnecessary regulations,” the lawmakers’ press release stated. “We want this effort to be farmer-driven, and strongly encourage the governor to abandon his efforts to enforce this unpopular proposition via administrative rule, and work with us through the legislative process to ensure maximum participation and input from farmers and other stakeholders.”