Water quality issues a focus at Worthington’s BiO Conference
WORTHINGTON, Minn. -- Water quality has been a hot topic from the statehouse to the farmhouse and everywhere in between as of late. The struggle to balance agricultural needs with water quality is at the forefront of many farmers' thoughts in the...
WORTHINGTON, Minn. - Water quality has been a hot topic from the statehouse to the farmhouse and everywhere in between as of late. The struggle to balance agricultural needs with water quality is at the forefront of many farmers’ thoughts in the fields.
At the Worthington BiO Conference Friday morning, Jeff Peterson, director of the Water Resources Center at the University of Minnesota in St. Paul, explained a number of the tools available to improve area waters and the value they have.
Peterson said water has several economical values. The use of water - particularly its consumption - is huge. He said agriculture is the largest consumer of water worldwide, and that water is also used for non-consumptive reasons such as recreation and hydropower.
Peterson said policy tools such as incentives and rules to encourage the adoption of good conservation practices have been a traditional means of attempting to improve water quality. Farmers are paid subsidies for taking part in federal and state programs. Likewise, farmers are paid to retire portions of land. While that method has many positives, it also can have negatives in terms of effectiveness.
In some instances, Peterson said farmers can receive incentives for practices they would have implemented anyway. While better practices may be good, they may not add any more overall benefit if that particular farmer would have done the same thing with or without payment.
Similarly, Peterson said, paying farmers at the same rate is also not completely effective. For example, two fields located in two separate areas - and farmed the same way, with the same conservation practices - may yield different amounts of benefit to water quality. Therefore, the government may be paying a lot for little benefit on one farm, with the opposite true on the other.
Another tool that has been implemented to improve water quality is the concept of water quality trading. Peterson said farmers can obtain credits for water quality improvements that can be sold to others to offset their discharges.
For farmers, one method of improving water quality - drainage water recycling - has a two-fold benefit.
Drainage water recycling diverts surface and subsurface drainage water from tiling, which Peterson said carries a lot of chemicals into water sources, and into on-farm ponds or reservoirs. The water is then stored locally until its usage by crops later in the season.
Since tile drainage occurs most often in the spring, it produces a source for water that can be used in the mid-to late summer when insufficient water may be available. Additionally, drainage water recycling can be used to recirculate water from one field to irrigate another.
“The estimates are that a lot of the nitrogen that’s finding its way into the Mississippi River is getting there through tile draining outlets,” Peterson said. “Of course, tile draining is very useful to farmers. … Farmers rely on getting excess water out of their fields to get crops in. At the same time, we’ve got an environmental impact for that.”