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Published July 17, 2014, 04:24 PM

Officials at Minn. meeting say farmers need to manage water before government steps in

If Minnesota farmers don’t cooperate to manage water, the federal and state government will do it for them, officials at a water issues forum said Thursday.

By: Jonathan Knutson, Agweek

GARY, Minn. — If Minnesota farmers don’t cooperate to manage water, the federal and state government will do it for them, officials at a water issues forum said Thursday.

Though farmers value their independence, “The best way to protect your independence is to work together,” said Warren Formo, executive director of the Minnesota Agricultural Water Resource Center.

The biggest immediate concern is the Waters of the United States proposal, which ag group officials say would give the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency too much control over farming and ranching.

Formo was one of the speakers at the Third Annual Red River Valley Ag Water Issues Forum in Gary, Minn. About 85 people, most of them farmers, attended the event, sponsored by the Minnesota Farm Bureau, northwest Minnesota county Farm Bureaus, the ag water resource center, and sugar beet, corn, wheat and soybean grower groups.

A similar session was held July 16 in Strathcona, Minn., and a third is scheduled for July 18 in Rothsay, Minn.

Farmers and other agriculturalists have limited time to tackle water management on their own before the federal government steps in to play an ever greater role, said Riley Maanum, the Minnesota Farm Bureau’s northwest Minnesota area program director, who led the Gary forum.

“We need to take this seriously,” he said.

Waters of the US

He and others are particularly worried about the EPA’s Waters of the U.S. proposal. According to information from the Minnesota Farm Bureau, the proposal would allow EPA to regulate small ponds, ditches, isolated wet spots and rainwater flowing through navigable wet spots, as if those areas were navigable waterways.

“The proposed rule would let EPA tell farmers how to farm, or even keep them from farming,” according to the Farm Bureau.

Farmers and others in agriculture need to work through Congress to stop the proposal, said Doug Busselman, public policy director of the Minnesota Farm Bureau. For more information, visit DITCHTHERULE.fb.org.

Farmers and others in northwest Minnesota have worked for decades to manage water. But their efforts have become harder and more important during the region’s ongoing wet cycle.

“I long for the days of half-inch rains. Now it’s four- and five-inch rains, and they come in waves,” said Don Baloun, Minnesota state conservationist with the Natural Resources Conservation Service, an arm of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Watershed districts

Local watershed districts have been a key player in Minnesota water management. The state has 45 such districts, which follow the boundaries of the natural watershed and consist of the land in which all water flows to one outlet.

Thursday’s forum included a panel featuring Myron Jesme of the Red Lake Watershed District, Daniel Wilkins of the Sand Hill River Watershed District and Kevin Ruud of the Wild Rice River Watershed District.

The panel discussion was moderated by Sharon Josephson, a staff member for Collin Peterson, who represents northwest Minnesota in Congress. She urged farmers to work with their local watershed district and to pass on their ideas and concerns to Peterson and Minnesota’s U.S. senators.

Water management often is both complicated and controversial.

In many cases, “water management comes down to your definition of community, and for some people the definition is ‘me,’” Wilkins said.

For others, the definition is broader, he said.

Farmers and the general public often view water management differently. One sign of that Thursday in Gary: During a question and answer session, one audience member complained that cities allow homes to be built in flood plains. The claim drew sympathetic chuckles from many in attendance.

Historically, many farmers have avoided involvement in state and local water management, Formo said.

He commended producers who attended the water issues forum in Gary. But he also challenged them to take an active role in water management

“Just going back to running our farms and not ever talking about it again is not a solution,” he said.

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