Editorial: Ag can’t deny water pollution

Published 9:34 am Thursday, April 16, 2015

Gov. Mark Dayton’s call for buffer strips along all streams, rivers, drainage ditches and other waterways may or may not become law this year, but it has helped focus the public’s attention on the terribly deteriorated state of our water resources and agriculture’s role in it.

There can be honest debate over the scope of any buffer strip requirements, but there is no debate about the human impact on water quality, particularly intense farming in southern Minnesota. The scientific evidence of nutrient and chemical pollution is broad and deep.

And while the buffer strip initiative aims at one part of the problem — nutrients leaching into waterways via surface runoff — it is only part of the discussion. Of equal, if not greater importance, is the direct role farm drainage has on increasing the water flow in rivers and streams — flow increases that rip away river banks and carry mud and more pollutants down river.

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Many farmers and ag groups have clung to the argument that farm drainage has little if any impact and that greater precipitation is to blame for the high, fast-flowing rivers. Some have bought ads in this newspaper stating “tile drainage does not increase annual water flow” and the laughable argument that “farming practices are much the same in Southern Minnesota” as they were decades ago.

As their evidence they point to a relatively old, single study, funded by farm groups that points to more precipitation as the cause. That study is widely dismissed as incomplete and shallow in its scientific foundation by other scientists who have been for decades collecting data and conducting highly technical research on the problems. Their conclusion is clear: While an increase in precipitation has contributed some, the No. 1 cause of rising rivers and erosion is the massive increase in highly effective farm drainage in recent years.

A recent report from the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency highlighting a mountain of studies done on the Le Sueur River watershed — the most polluting of all in southern Minnesota — lists the No. 1 problem as artificial drainage, saying it “is driving many of the problems in the watershed.”

Cities and industries used to casually pipe pollutants and poorly treated sewer plant water into rivers until science proved the dangers of it. The residents of those cities and taxpayers paid and continue to pay for expensive upgrades and changes that vastly improve — albeit haven’t eliminated — much of the pollution.

No one should view farmers as evil because some of the modern farm practices unknowingly cause significant problems with the public’s waterways. But that doesn’t mean agribusiness can ignore the mountain of solid scientific knowledge available and began to help provide solid, meaningful solutions to the problems of farm drainage and nutrient and chemical pollution.


— Mankato Free Press, April 13

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