The Working Lands Drinking Water Protection Program

Curved terraces of green alfafa

Alfalfa is a perennial crop that protects water quality and soil health, enhances habitat and is profitable for farmers to grow. Boosting markets for such crops is a win-win for our environment and farm prosperity.

Despite admirable conservation efforts, state research is clear: Minnesota cannot achieve our clean water goals in agricultural areas without year-round vegetation on the land.

The solution seems simple: get more vegetation on the land for longer periods of time. Unfortunately, alternative crops that protect water and soil aren’t currently being planted. Why?

In short, they don’t make any money. Paying farm operations to grow them is too expensive at scale, and forcing farms to grow them would be a political and economic disaster.

The answer: developing market-based solutions that provide the economic incentives farm operations need to plant alternative crops for harvest and sale at a real profit. This approach allows us to protect clean water while maintaining farm prosperity — a key part of FMR’s water quality mission.

The Working Lands Drinking Water Protection Program

Through our 2019 Minnesota Water Act, FMR and our allies will be asking for $8 million to fund the “Working Lands Drinking Water Protection Program”. This program is designed specifically to help farmers plant and sell alternative crops that protect drinking water while maintaining farm profitability. As a pilot initiative, it is limited to the state's most vulnerable wellhead areas.

Why wellhead areas?

Every journey begins with the first step. Our first step: wellhead protection areas.

About 75% of Minnesotans get their drinking water from underground aquifers. Community well systems have clearly defined wellhead areas known as “Drinking Water Supply Management Areas", or DWSMAs.

Within our ~1.28 million acres of DWSMAs, about 360,000 acres are considered vulnerable (i.e., at higher risk for contamination) based on their soils or underlying geology. Of those acres, about 118,000 are planted in row crops (corn and soybeans).

Transitioning these 118,000 acres to a more diverse crop mix with better year-round vegetation cover can greatly improve drinking water quality, surface water quality, soil health and habitat, all serving as a pilot project for new cropping system markets. Other benefits of this approach include:

  • Wellhead protection areas / DWSMAs are of a manageable size, so we can expect to see positive results. Plus, community water supplies are tested regularly, providing built-in opportunities to monitor results.
  • There is a high level of bipartisan support for drinking water protection.
  • Many communities and rural water districts are interested in planting Kernza in their wellhead protection areas, and several pilots are currently underway with support from the Minnesota Department of Agriculture and Environment Trust Fund dollars.
  • The University of Minnesota’s Forever Green Initiative anticipates having enough seed available for 300,000 acres by 2020, providing the seed necessary to pilot the program at full scale.
  • By developing or enhancing markets for these alternative crops, it may be possible to improve both water quality and Minnesota’s agricultural economy.

How did we get here?

From 2014 through 2016, a unique coalition of renewable energy, environmental and agricultural organizations promoted legislation to create the Working Lands Watershed Restoration Program (Laws of Minnesota 2016, Chapter 189, Article 3, Section 4).

That process resulted in a months-long effort to prepare the Working Lands Watershed Restoration Feasibility Study and Program Plan, a study and report to the Legislature completed in February 2018. The key findings of that study are:

  1. Perennial crops and winter annual cover crops can yield multiple benefits for water quality, soil health, carbon storage, habitat and Minnesota’s rural economy.
  2. We need well-defined markets, clear supply chains and clear incentives that “de-risk” the transition to such cropping systems.

Ongoing efforts to build off of that work have resulted in a shared decision to pursue pilot implementation in wellhead protection areas as our first step toward statewide implementation.

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