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Steve Karnowski, Associated Press, Published June 10 2013

Vilsack to launch Minnesota farm water quality program

ST. PAUL — Four Minnesota watersheds have been selected to test a voluntary pilot project that offers farmers incentives to reduce water pollution from their operations, federal and state officials announced Monday.

U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack joined Gov. Mark Dayton and other officials at a USDA lab on the University of Minnesota's St. Paul campus to announce details of the Minnesota Agricultural Water Quality Certification Program. Farmers who sign up to get certified will agree to adopt good conservation practices to control soil erosion and the runoff of manure, fertilizers and insecticides. In return, they'll get the certainty of guarantees that they won't be subjected to stricter rules for 10 years as long as they meet their obligations. Technical and financial assistance will be available.

The pilot areas are the Whitewater River watershed in southeastern Minnesota, the Middle Sauk River watershed in central Minnesota, the Elm Creek watershed in south-central Minnesota and the Whiskey Creek watershed in northwestern Minnesota. The goal is to use these small areas to test and refine the program.

The USDA describes the program as the first of its kind in the nation. It's the product of an agreement Vilsack, Dayton and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Lisa Jackson signed in January 2012, the work of an advisory committee that delivered its recommendations last November, and a series of public listening sessions held across the state in February.

The Legislature approved the state's participation in May and appropriated $3 million from the Clean Water Legacy sales tax fund to launch the program and to leverage $6.5 million in federal funding previously announced.

The four areas were selected through a competitive process involving state and local officials, and the terrain and types of agriculture practiced in them vary. The Whitewater River watershed, for example, is an area of plateaus where row crops dominate and deep forested valleys where beef and dairy cattle graze. It's also a popular tourist destination because of its more than 100 miles of trout streams and two state parks. The Sauk River watershed covers more than half of Stearns County, the state's top dairy producing county, and has over 14 cows per square mile.

Controlling water pollution from agriculture has been a challenge for regulators. While it's relatively simple to measure pollution discharged by “point sources” such as factories or wastewater treatment plants, it's harder to measure it from “nonpoint sources” such as farms. Agriculture is exempt from the federal Clean Water Act, so officials have been promoting voluntary measures to reduce pollution from farmers and have said they hope the new program provides assurances to the public that farmers are doing their part.

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Online:

Minnesota Agricultural Water Quality Certification Program: http://bit.ly/ypSElg


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