Minnesota gets a bad report card for nitrate reduction (part one)

by Trevor Russell
Not even Minnesota's near-term Mississippi River nitrate reduction goals get a passing grade. Only a fraction of our land employs cover crops or perennial grains, solutions which would reduce water pollution. (NRCS/SWCS photo by Lynn Betts)

 

In part one of this series, we’ll look at the results of the state’s recent nutrient reduction report card. In part two (coming soon), we’ll detail what we need to do to turn things around.

Question: Is Minnesota on track for nitrate pollution reductions to the Mississippi River?

Answer: Not. Even. Close.

The report card

Way back in 2014, the state established nutrient reduction goals for the Mississippi River. That includes an interim pollution reduction goal of 25% from 2014 to 2024 and a 45% reduction by 2040.

The reduction goals are ambitious, but certainly achievable if we make steady progress. So how are we doing? To answer that, the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency recently released its five-year progress report on Minnesota’s Nutrient Reduction Strategy

Let’s dive in to their report.

A tale of two pollutants

Nutrients like nitrogen and phosphorus are essential for plant, human and animal life and growth. But excess nutrients in surface waters can impair aquatic life and recreation, and make drinking water unsafe for public consumption.

Consistent with the findings of our 2016 State of the River Report, this state report card shows some good news for phosphorus — and some really bad news for nitrate-nitrogen.

  • Good news: Phosphorus pollution has generally decreased. This is almost entirely due to massive public investment in advanced wastewater treatment plant upgrades in the past 20 years, mostly put in place before the nutrient reduction strategy was published.
  • Bad news: Nitrate pollution is increasing in many areas and flat in others. This is largely due to ineffective efforts to address cropland runoff, where we have made little-to-no progress despite investing millions in voluntary conservation efforts.

As a result, the Mississippi River has fallen well behind our targets for water quality improvement, imperiling water quality and public health both here and downstream.

Cropland pollution control: spinning our wheels

The results are particularly concerning when looking at agricultural runoff pollution, showing limited progress toward even the interim 2024 pollution reduction milestones.

But how are things looking on the landscape at the local level? From 2014 to 2018, here is the per-acre progress we’ve made in the Mississippi River toward the interim milestones of the nutrient reduction strategy.

  • Nutrient management (1% of interim goal): 59,550 new acres of nutrient management efficiency practices were added to the Mississippi River basin, only 1% of the 6.1 million acres required by 2024.
  • Drainage water management (1.6% of interim goal): 10,183 new acres of tile drainage water treatment and storage practices were added to the Mississippi River basin, only 1.6% of 600,000 acres required by 2024.
  • Field erosion control practices (4% of interim goal): 185,691 new acres of field erosion control practices were added, only 4% of the 4.5 million acres required by 2024.
  • Perennial cover (8.8% of interim goal)[1]: 35,319 acres of perennials were added, only 8.8% of the 400,000 acres required by 2024. This is despite ~99% statewide compliance with the state’s public waters buffer rule.
  • Cover crops (11% of interim goal): 136,673 acres of cover crops were added, only 11% of the 1.2 million acres required by 2024. Overall cover crop establishment on corn and bean acres, in particular, remains at about 1-1.5% statewide.

While we’re only halfway to the deadline for achieving our interim goals, it’s safe to say that progress of between 1% and 11% is not a passing grade.

The report expresses some enthusiasm that adoption rates of these strategies and acreage included will suddenly skyrocket in the next few years, the reality is that after 70+ years of promoting voluntary conservation practices on cropland, we're simply not making meaningful progress toward our water quality goals.

Not the farmers' fault

It's important to state this clearly: This isn’t the fault of farmers. It’s easy to slip into the "bad actor" mindset and conclude that farm businesses are careless, wasteful or dishonest. While that can be true in some isolated cases, it’s far from the norm. Most producers do their best under very difficult circumstances.

The truth is that annual row crops like corn and soybeans simply aren’t very good at holding nitrate on the land, even when grown with maximum precision. By nature, they're too leaky.

It’s often not economically possible (for individuals or taxpayers) to invest in enough pollution control devices and practices to move the needle on our statewide water quality problems.

It’s time to look beyond how we farm and begin to focus on a different topic altogether: what we farm.

Getting to clean water, a preview of part two

As we’ve noted before, Minnesota cannot achieve our clean water goals using the same old strategies that have proven (once more) to be insufficient or ineffective. As this report correctly states, achieving the state’s 45% nitrate reduction goal will require a massive increase in perennial crops and cover crops each year in Minnesota:

"These 45% reduction scenarios indicate that the total amount of land with cover crops or perennials would ultimately need to increase by an estimated 10 to 12 million acres from the current living cover acreages."[2]

And that acreage target doesn’t account for the future increases in nitrate loss we can already expect due to the impacts of climate change and extreme weather events.

Whether it’s 10 million, 12 million or 15 million acres of year-round vegetation, we’ve got a long way to go.

One thing is for sure: we can’t buy our way there. Some programs promise to pay farm operators to plant cover crops each year. That payment is typically around $50 per acre. At even just 10 million acres, that’s $500,000,000 a year. Every year. Forever. And it still won’t solve all our water problems.

It’s time to look at new solutions so that when the state releases its next report card in 2025, we can show meaningful progress toward our water quality goals.

Coming soon: part two

In part two of this series, we’ll look more closely at new directions the state can take to reduce nutrient pollution to our surface waters and drinking water.

Meanwhile, sign up as a River Guardian and we'll email you when there's a chance to act quickly online for the river on issues like this. Plus you'll be invited to special events like educational happy hours.

 

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[1] This includes conservation cover, conservation crop rotation, conservation easements, critical area planting, filter strip, riparian forest buffer, riparian herbaceous cover, forage and biomass plantings combined. It does not include cropland acres enrolled in the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) – which actually dropped in the first year of the report card (2014 to 2015) and have remained flat since.

[2] Of the approximately 16 million acres of row crops statewide.