Hi everyone, we have a lot of questions we want to get to today, so let’s get started. You can submit your questions by clicking “make a comment.”
I am joined today by Dave Peters who is the director of our Ground Level project. He helped organize this investigation and oversees this deep look into Minnesota's use of groundwater.
Hello, everyone. Happy to be doing this.
Dave, remind us what the MPR News work found out about irrigation and water permits.
First of all, I should make clear who did the work on the interesting project we broadcast and put online this week. More than a year ago MPR News reporter Mark Steil, who is based in Worthington and who has a long history of covering farm issues, and his editor here in St. Paul, Bill Catlin, started looking at the issue of irrigation pumping and the state’s system of oversight.
Bottom line on this week’s story: Of about 1,200 irrigation wells drilled in Minnesota between 2008 and 2012, more than 200 appear to be operating without a permit and another 200 or so only recently received a permit.
The reason that’s significant is that millions of gallons of water are being pumped out of the ground that nobody is keeping track of and that in turn makes it harder for the state to understand what’s going on with a resource that is increasingly seen as vulnerable.
How did we find this out?
The reporting process in concept was pretty straightforward, if laborious. Bill and Mark looked at all the wells drilled -- well drillers file information with the state health department. They figured out which ones seemed to be irrigation wells that needed Department of Natural Resources permits. And then they checked DNR records to see which ones were missing. As a final step, they plotted those missing wells on a map using Google and Bing, identifying the circular signature of crop irrigation circles to pin them down.
Minnesota is working on a number of fronts to figure out -- before a crisis induced by drought or any other factor -- how to make sure the groundwater beneath the state is managed in a way that makes it available for the foreseeable future. A pretty big factor in that process is knowing more about what’s beneath the ground, knowing what’s being pumped and figuring out whether that’s a sustainable amount.
I should say that on another front, to some people it’s a matter of fairness. Some farmers are following the rules and aren’t happy about the fact that others aren’t.
I understand there are efforts in the Legislature to do something about this?
In January, the Department of Natural Resources asked the Legislature to approve measures that would make tracking this information easier. The DNR said its ability to issue citations wasn’t significant enough and it said it suspected that some farmers were not very rigorous in reporting how much water they were pumping.
It’s not clear what will come out of the Legislature, but the Senate this week approved a measure that would let the DNR issue tougher penalties, as much as $20,000.
Irrigation can make a given field much more valuable. Depending on crop prices, an irrigated field can bring tens of thousands of dollars more in a year than a field depending on rain.
What the DNR is asking for in that regard is similar to what, say, the Pollution Control Agency can do to penalize water polluters or the Department of Health can levy against violators of public health rules. Technically, it’s called an “administrative penalty order.”
Does the DNR turn down permits frequently?
Not often. So that makes some people wonder how much it matters whether an irrigator gets one. I think one reason it's unusual is that typically a well owner has to ask for the permit after he’s made a significant investment in drilling the well. There’s a fairly new provision in state law that lets someone ask for a preliminary assessment before he invests. My understanding is that has led the DNR at least in a few cases to tell farmers they may have trouble getting a permit.
I don’t know specifically how the vote went in the Senate on the tougher penalties this week. The measure was DFL-sponsored. The measure in the House does have one Republican signed on to it, according to Elizabeth Dunbar, the MPR News reporter covering it.
I think it’s fair to say there has been extreme reluctance in the past by lawmakers and state agencies to tell farmers what to do. Lots of efforts have been put into education and helping determine best practices for water management and fertilizer application, for example. I also think it’s fair to say more people are wondering whether a voluntary approach is sufficient.
I've heard reference to the notion that "random acts of conservation" are not sufficient.
I just asked MPR political editor Mike Mulcahy about this. He says that “farmers generally do pretty well at the legislature.”
A quick look at how many farmers are currently serving in the legislature:
There are 6 farmers currently serving in the Minnesota House. It is up a bit from recent years. By comparison there are 21 members from the business community and 19 members that are educators.
In the Senate, 3 out of 67 members are farmers.
There was a minor kerfuffle when Jean Wagenious who is a Democrat from Minneapolis was appointed chair of the Environment, Natural Resources and Agriculture Finance Committee. Republicans raised concerns that she’d be more environment than ag.
Dave, how important is Wagenious' role in getting Minnesota to look at groundwater?
[note: we are getting a lot of long comments that I will post at the end of the chat. If you have a specific question we will try to get to it asap]
She’s been a big factor in trying get the state to think differently about this, including giving the DNR some tools. Maybe the best example is the establishment of three “groundwater management areas,” where the DNR is convening over 18 months or so efforts to look at the resource in a given area and get farmers, cities, businesses and others come to some consensus about how to use it.
One of those areas is in the Twin Cities and two are in rural Minnesota.
When I talked with Wagenius a month or two ago about this, one thing she was emphasizing was that water is too cheap, that we haven’t been very clear about putting a value on groundwater. But she ran into stiff opposition from irrigators when she tried to move toward charging more.
Aside from the question of permits, is there any evidence that irrigators are changing their use of irrigation water?
Yes, irrigators will tell you they’re using water more smartly than perhaps they once were. One farmer, for example, said that just spraying water lower to the ground reduced losses to evaporation. And new technology is making it possible to put water where and when it’s needed more precisely.
And even though the cost of water is pretty low, electricity to pump it isn’t necessarily cheap. So that’s another incentive for an irrigator to be conservative.
A number of farmers brought it up during interviews, and Mark said most of them liked the system, saying that for them it was fairly quick and simple to get through. I’m sure the DNR (and probably the state's new Office of Broadband Development) would like to hear about it if lack of Internet access is a factor here.
Just to clarify, our story focused on whether irrigation wells had a permit to pump. The DNR has said it has concerns about how accurate irrigators are when they report how much water they pump, but our reporting didn’t examine those figures.