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Runoff Elections: Cast Your Ballot for a Mightier Mississippi

May 21, 2014 By Wouter Hammink, Macalester College

Today Minnesota 2020 continues a series of columns focusing on agricultural and biodiversity issues. This is part of a continuing collaboration with Macalester College's Geography Department and its students.

As Minnesota makes its transition from the depths of winter to the scorching summer, much more than melted snow will fill Minnesota’s mighty Mississippi River. After the ground thaws, the state’s farmers will begin preparing their fields for the year’s crops. They’ll apply laboratory-made fertilizers and pesticides, which eventually make their way through the soil and into our many waterways. Currently these practices wreak havoc imperceptible to most on both the local environment and the entire Mississippi River Basin’s ecological makeup.

Agricultural runoff, commonly called a nonpoint source because it cannot be traced back to a single location such as a factory, is a major threat not only to Minnesota’s citizens but also to the Mississippi’s far-reaching watershed. Runoff from farms creates algal blooms resulting in obstructed rivers, contaminates vital groundwater supplies that Minnesotans depend on, and threatens fish and other animal populations.



It’s simple to ignore the impacts of individual actions on a compounded scale, but the reality is that the Mississippi River runs south of Minnesota through eleven other states and into the Gulf of Mexico. Hypoxia in the Gulf of Mexico, concentrations of nitrogen in surface and ground water, soil erosion, and even climate change are all indications that our agricultural systems are out of alignment with the environment. We drastically need to reassess our agricultural priorities both within Minnesota and throughout the Mississippi River watershed.

By the time water in the Mississippi River leaves Minnesota, it is already harshly contaminated. According to the United States Geological Survey, seventy percent of nitrogen and phosphorus pollution in the Mississippi’s river basin comes from agricultural runoff. Over half of the nitrate pollution in the Gulf of Mexico results from corn and soybean production. Minnesota’s agricultural and environmental policy agendas should promote farming that not only supports economically sound food production, but also protects our state’s invaluable resources.

As the headwater state of the Mississippi, Minnesota has an obligation to treat the river with the utmost care. Instead, as much as two hundred million pounds of nitrates leave the state annually, according to the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency. This is unacceptable. With thirty-seven Minnesota counties in the rivershed, a state-led initiative to control runoff pollution is essential. Without environmental protections starting at the river’s source, states further south have no incentive to legislate clean water practices.

While point source pollution has been strictly controlled since the passage of the Clean Water Act over forty years ago, the opposite is true for nonpoint runoff from agriculture. Loopholes have allowed industrial-sized farms to avoid regulation, and developments in agricultural practices have amplified the impact farms have on the quality of our rivers. Controlling for this type of pollution will undoubtedly be the next major progression in environmental improvement, but Minnesota’s legislators need to know that its citizens demand urgent action.

The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency in tandem with the Environmental Protection Agency is developing a strategy to overcome these loopholes and address nitrate and phosphorus pollution, but citizens should be pushing for swifter action. While these departments can issue changes, our state legislators, directly accountable to Minnesota’s citizens, should be at the forefront of legislation to hold polluters accountable for their nitrate and phosphorus runoff. We need to act not only to ensure that the MPCA follows through with its strategy, but so that Minnesota’s state legislators know their voters mean business.

Right now most conventional farms are exempt from Clean Water Act policies, but state legislators have the authority to hold polluters accountable. Legislation could require ditch protections, perennial field bordering, and other measures to reduce nutrient pollution. As I learned growing up on a dairy farm, farmers don’t pollute with malicious intent, they farm according to the legal and economic norms that allow them to make a living. In order to push for this framework, Minnesota’s farmers must be included in policy discussions to achieve a practical reality for future legislation.

If we as concerned citizens do not take action, if clearly defined legislation to regulate nonpoint source pollution is not enacted, or if special interests within the agribusiness industry prevent the MPCA or legislators from acting, we will continue to exacerbate this truly solvable ecological nightmare. Until now, the Minnesota Legislature has hesitated to act on establishing nutrient standards for Minnesota’s many rivers, which is exactly why we must urge our leaders to pressure the MPCA to move forward on establishing these standards. The impacts of inaction will be real not just in the Land of 10,000 Lakes, but also in all twelve states the Mississippi touches. As citizens of the headwater state, it is our responsibility as Minnesotans to ensure that the Mighty Mississippi’s nickname remains true.

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