Environmental regulators are rightly getting tougher on Minnesota River pollution, and meeting environmental standards will require residents, businesses and farmers to make difficult changes to their way of life.
A Minnesota Pollution Control Agency report released last week made a significant but perhaps not shocking conclusion that sediment in the Minnesota River and the Greater Blue Earth River must be reduced by 50 percent to meet environmental standards.
And much of that reduction must come from agriculture as it makes up 80 percent of the land in the 10 million acre Minnesota River basin. But runoff pollution from farmland is considered a “nonpoint” source of pollution, and therefore not subject to specific federal or state pollution regulation.
Thus farmer participation in reducing runoff is mostly voluntary and therefore can be problematic. While some farmers have been taking significant action to reduce runoff from their fields, their efforts are not enough. There is still far too much sediment flowing into the rivers.
The solutions are known. Runoff can be greatly reduced with more cover crops. Planting cover crops in the fall after harvest would go a long way to reducing sediment and nutrients flowing into rivers during the heavy spring melting period in Minnesota.
Cover crops also enrich the soil with nitrogen with the benefit of reducing costs. Cover crops act as a natural way to slow runoff and enhance absorption of even heavy rainfall.
The risks of using cover crops include possible soil disease and pests, but USDA experts suggest those risks can be managed by being vigilant and using the appropriate cover crop for the appropriate land type. The benefits of cover crops outweigh the risks.
Farmers say cover crops are difficult to manage in Minnesota because the short growing season makes it difficult to plant them in the fall. That sounds like a hurdle but not a roadblock.
And cost should not be a factor. In most cases cover crops can be planted for $3 to $5 per acre, and the Blue Earth County Soil and Water Conservation District will pay 50 percent to 75 percent of the cost of putting in cover crops.
Yet, less than 10 percent of farmers in Blue Earth County plant cover crops, according to estimates by the soil conservation district.
Cities, businesses and residents need to do their part. That means cities must require developers to build adequate holding ponds, and reduce surface runoff with rain gardens or other strategies. Residents need to limit their use of pesticides that can end up in rivers. Counties may need to restrict further the building of homes along rivers where erosion is sure to occur.
The recent report will be filed with the Environmental Protection Agency as part of the mandate for states to come up with water quality plans. The public will be able to comment on the plan and suggest changes.
But the facts are clear. The Minnesota River, the Blue Earth River and their tributaries are getting worse. Weather patterns have been proven to be more extreme with heavier rainfalls. That spells disaster for the Minnesota River if we don’t act with some urgency.
We urge farmers to work with their soil conservation district to plant cover crops. These are simple and relatively inexpensive steps to improve river water quality.
To do nothing is to risk the land and the water.