BALMM to meet Dec. 16 in Oronoco

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December 2016

BALMM to meet Dec. 16 in Oronoco, soil health on agenda

The Basin Alliance for the Lower Mississippi in Minnesota (BALMM) will meet Wednesday, Dec. 16, from 9 a.m. to noon at the People’s Energy Cooperative, 1775 Lake Shady Ave. South in Oronoco, Minn.

Agenda as follows:

  • 9 a.m.: Soil Microorganisms Orchestrate Nutrient Dynamics for Agricultural Production,Dr. Michael Lehman, soil microbiologist, USDA-ARS, Brookings, SD
  • 10 a.m.: Break
  • 10:30 a.m.:Soil health teams in southern Minnesota, Steve Pahs, District Manager, Rice County SWCD 
  • Noon: Adjourn

Research: Cover cropping leads to more microbes that increase nutrient uptake by plants

Soil health

Reducing the leaching of nutrients from ag land to lakes and streams is a multi-front effort. One of those fronts is almost invisible to the eye. Soil microbes play an important role in nutrient dynamics and can even increase a plant ability to use more nutrients like phosphorus.

At the Dec. BALMM meeting, Dr. Michael Lehman, a soil microbiologist with the USDA Agricultural Research Service in Brookings, S.D., will present information on the complexity of soil microbial communities and the challenges that this complexity poses. He will discuss the roles of different soil microbes and connect their relevance to agricultural producers, particularly nutrient dynamics.

 Specific attention will be given to arbuscular mycorrhizal fungi (AMF) which are important plant symbionts that can increase nutrient uptake, especially phosphorus, by the host plant and provide many other benefits to producers. Lehman will share research data that illustrate that cover cropping can increase AMF numbers and diversity, which in turn, increase the probability of significant benefits being received by the producer.

Lehman conducts basic and applied research in soil microbial ecology to identify and quantify the interactions between soil microbes and various crop and soil management strategies, including crop residues, extended crop rotations, cover crops, and tillage. Current research objectives include documenting and quantifying the benefits of soil microorganisms in agricultural systems. The end goal is to promote agricultural management practices that optimize the multiple ecosystem services provided by soil microorganisms.

Rice County gets Soil Health Team off the ground

Also at the Dec. 16 BALMM meeting, Steve Pahs, district manager of the Rice County Soil and Water Conservation District, will discuss how Rice County is promoting soil health through the development of a soil health team. Many counties in the region are trying to get these USDA/NRCS originated teams off the ground. The goals are to have these teams provide grassroots leadership and guidance on soil health issues in local communities; provide and/or receive training; and give local insight of accomplishments with soil health practices.

Dave Legvold in Rice County

South Metro Mississippi TMDL report submitted to EPA

Sediment clouds Minnesota and Mississippi rivers

After almost four years of processing 400-plus comments and several requests for contested case hearings, the MPCA has finished revisions to the South Metro Mississippi Total Maximum Daily (TMDL) report and submitted it to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for final approval. The report addresses the total suspended solids impairment in the river from St. Paul to Lake Pepin. Photo: Plume of sediment entering the Mississippi from the Minnesota River. 

During the 2012 public comment period, the agency received requests for contested case hearings from the following entities:

  • City of Minneapolis;
  • Minnesota Cities Stormwater Coalition / League of Minnesota Cities and several other member cities or entities;
  • Lower Minnesota River Watershed District;
  • Minnesota Soybean Growers Assoc., Brown County Corn and Soybean Growers, and several individual producers; and
  • Lake Pepin Legacy Alliance.

After discussions and other communication with MPCA staff, the city of Minneapolis, the Minnesota Cities Stormwater Coalition / League of Minnesota Cities (and most of the member cities / entities) and the Lake Pepin Legacy Alliance withdrew their hearing requests. After much review and discussion, the MPCA denied the other hearing requests.

The revised TMDL report is available on the South Metro Mississippi webpage.

The majority of sediment in this stretch of the Mississippi originates in the Greater Blue Earth River and Minnesota River. The agency is working on revisions to TMDL reports for those river systems. The revisions address changes in water quality standards.

Clean Water Partnership opens continuous funding round

The Clean Water Partnership (CWP) program is now accepting applications from local governmental units interested in loan funding to lead a nonpoint source pollution control project for protection or restoration of Minnesota’s water bodies. A total of $11 million is available in funding.  Application can be made at any time. Currently there is no end date for application.

The Clean Water Partnership Loan Program Request for Proposals (RFP) can be found on the MPCA website.  The application and related information will be accepted through an email address listed in the RFP.  The CWP grant program previously used the State Wide Integrated Financial Tools (SWIFT) system as a publishing tool for grants. It will not use SWIFT for the continuous funding round.   

The 2015 Legislature did not fund Clean Water Partnership grants. As a result, MPCA will not offer CWP grant funding rounds in 2016 or 2017. Current CWP projects will continue until their agreement end dates, the last of which will be June 30, 2018.

Governor to convene statewide water quality summit in February

Gov. Mark Dayton, at the annual meetings of the Minnesota Farm Bureau and the Minnesota Farmers Union, announced his plans to convene a statewide Water Quality Summit in February. The summit will focus public attention on the serious challenges facing Minnesota’s water supplies – in both rural and urban areas of the state – and continue statewide dialogue around steps that must be taken to address those challenges. 

The summit will include water quality experts, farmers, legislators, regulators, the business community, members of the public, local leaders, and a wide variety of other stakeholders. “My father believed – as I believe – that stewardship is a profound responsibility of each of us. To take what we have been given – or have acquired – and leave it in better condition for those who will inherit from us,” Gov. Dayton said. “This is everyone’s challenge, and everyone’s responsibility.”

In his remarks to the Minnesota Farm Bureau, Gov. Dayton elaborated on the need for a statewide Water Quality Summit, and provided some additional information about what the summit may address. Audio of the governor's remarks can be found here. Additional details about the Governor's Water Quality Summit will be provided in the coming weeks. Star Tribune editorial, Nov. 25, 2015: "Water quality is a worthy signature issue for Dayton."

In Minnesota: Comment period open for fertilizer rule

The Minnesota Department of Agriculture (MDA) is requesting comments through Jan. 26 on topics relating to the state’s proposed Nitrogen Fertilizer Rule designed to protect groundwater. This rule will address agronomic crops that require significant amounts of nitrogen fertilizer. These crops include corn, small grains, edible beans, sugarbeets, and irrigated potatoes grown in the crop rotation.

The purpose of this request for comments is to solicit stakeholder feedback on a variety of proposed topics related to the rule. The proposed Nitrogen Fertilizer Rule will require the regulatory provisions discussed in the state’s blueprint for preventing or minimizing the impact of nitrogen fertilizer on groundwater, called the Nitrogen Fertilizer Management Plan (NFMP).

The rule will consist of two parts:

  • The first will apply to areas of the state overlying vulnerable groundwater areas where nitrogen fertilizer applications in the fall or to frozen soils will have restrictions.
  • The second will apply to areas where measured nitrate levels in groundwater are elevated and the state has determined that nitrogen fertilizer Best Management Practices (BMPs) are not being adopted. Restrictions will vary for different regions and soil types, and will be based on the nitrogen BMPs developed by the University of Minnesota and adopted by the MDA.

Visit the MDA’s Nitrogen Fertilizer Rule website for more information, or contact Larry Gunderson at or Katie Wolf at

In Iowa: Utility stresses importance of drinking water in lawsuit over nitrate sources

Drainage systems in Sac County, Iowa

Facing escalating costs to denitrify its drinking water, taken from the Raccoon River, the Des Moines Water Works is suing three upstream counties over nitrate levels in the river.

The utility provides drinking water for 500,000 urban and rural customers in central Iowa. To meet federal standards, it had to denitrify its water for a record 148 days in one year, according to Bill Stowe, CEO and General Manager of the utility. That’s up from the previous record of 108 days.

Stowe recently spoke in St. Paul and Mankato as part of a lecture series held by the Freshwater Society.

The utility is suing three Iowa counties and their drainage districts. alleging they discharge nitrate pollutants into the river, and fail to obtain a National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permit in violation of the Clean Water Act. The complaint seeks to declare the drainage districts as “point sources,” meaning they are subject to regulation and required to have a permit under federal and Iowa law.

Though more than 30 counties make up the drainage area for the Raccoon River, Des Moines Water Works named the three counties of Buena Vista, Sac and Calhoun in the lawsuit because water monitoring shows high nitrate concentrations in drainage tile in those counties where the only source is agriculture. There are no other sources such as wastewater treatment plants and golf courses, Stowe said.

The utility chose to sue because it is spending more than $1 million a year to denitrify its drinking water to safe consumption levels. If nitrate trends in the Raccoon River continue to climb, then the utility will need to build a new denitrification facility, estimated to cost between $76 million and $183 million.

Stowe said he understands the need to drain water for agriculture, but it’s being done with no regard to the quantity and quality of water being moved downstream. According to Iowa State University researchers, corn and soybean fields are the primary cause of nitrate levels in Iowa waterways.

 “No other business besides ag can run a pipe without regulation to a water of the state,” Stowe said.

With a permit, the drainage districts would need to meet pollutant limits for their discharges. Stowe cited conservation practices like nitrogen stabilizers and saturated buffers that could reduce nitrate levels in streams.

“We don’t want to bankrupt agriculture. We want to put the cost of taking out the nitrate off our customers and back on the people benefiting from it,” he said. “This not an issue that’s going to go away on voluntarism.”

According to news reports, Iowa farm leaders say solutions like cover crops and bioreactors that reduce nitrogen leaching take time to get in place. Also, the law firm representing the counties argues that the drainage districts have no power to direct how landowners use or manage their properties, nor control over what goes through the drainage tiles.

The lawsuit is scheduled to be heard in federal court in Sioux City in August 2016.

Photo above: Agricultural drainage systems in Sac County, Iowa, from Stowe’s presentation.

Civic engagement summit: Develop a “people-shed” to restore, protect waters

Conservation on Minnesota farmland

Developing a “people-shed” of rural stakeholders to adopt conservation practices is a key component in restoring and protecting water quality, according to Dr. Ryan Atwell, coordinator of social science at Yellowstone National Park. He spoke Oct. 15 at the second annual Southern Minnesota Civic Engagement Summit.

About 50 staff from SWCDs, counties, watershed districts, universities, and state agencies across southern Minnesota met at Land of Memories Park in Mankato for this summit organized by the MPCA.

Atwell is experienced assessing opportunities to improve land management in agricultural lands using social science and civic engagement techniques. He shared his previous work experience in the Midwest on the science of rural decision-making and leading discussions to help build multi-scale strategies for watershed outcomes.

Through research, Atwell has found that internal beliefs and attitude, along with social norms and networks, play a bigger role than economics in farmers’ and rural residents’ decision-making process. He advised watershed professionals to tap into people’s concern for their rural communities when trying to change landscapes to better water quality. He also stressed that civic engagement needs to be genuine to succeed and to focus more on “why” than “what.”

His presentation can be found here:

Also speaking was Tobias Spanier, a U of M Extension Educator in Leadership and Civic Engagement. He helped the group take a closer look at their civic engagement efforts and hosted an interactive session on visioning for civic engagement to achieve landscape change and water quality improvement.

For Joanne Boettcher of the Mankato MPCA office, a couple key points stood out:

One, it takes a multi-level approach to facilitate landscape change and bring about wide-scale adoption of effective conservation practices. Watershed professionals need to work at three levels:

  • Individual (field) scale
  • Community (landscape) scale
  • Institutional/policy (regional) scale

Often times, watershed professionals are working in only the field or community scale. While this does not mean their work is ineffective, they do need to realize that there are constraints to a program that cannot work at all three levels.

Two, conservation work calls for some compromise. Programs and conservation that can hit multiple objectives, including keeping the landscape a working landscape, are much more likely to be adopted and have success. The idea that agricultural lands should be converted back to a prairie, for instance, is a non-starter for many landowners and producers. People have seen lands come out of production only to be taken over by weeds.

Instead, working grasslands offer a win-win: they keep land in agricultural productivity but have far greater environmental benefits compared to conventional row crop production.

The summit was a success, according to participants. When asked if they had any burning questions, one said, “No, just burning desire to get started again with renewed enthusiasm.”