Minnesota Agricultural Water Quality Certification Program

Agricultural drain tile discharges to a ditch in Minnesota farm country. Ag drainage flushes high levels of nitrate pollution to surfaces waters, and increases total farm field runoff volume (leading to more erosive rivers as the extra water moves downstream). While these two sources of pollution are the most pressing threats to Mississippi River health, neither is effectively addressed in the state's agricultural water quality certification program.

In January 2012, the state announced a new agricultural water quality program administered by the Minnesota Department of Agriculture (MDA): The Minnesota Agricultural Water Quality Certification Program (MAWQCP).

MAWQCP is a voluntary farm incentive program that works by scoring farm operations on a scale of 1-10 for their water quality impact. Any farm with an 8.5 score or higher earns certification, and with it immunity from any new water quality regulations for a period of 10 years.

While the concept of a farm certification program has promise, FMR has long expressed serious concerns with MDA implementation of the program.

These concerns are validated in a new report from our friends at the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy (MCEA).

About the report
MCEA conducted a comprehensive analysis of the program, comparing data on drain tile effluent from some fields that have also been scored through the MAWQCP. The report found that drain tile pollution levels exceeded state standards by between 1.5 and 5 times, although several sites scored high enough to be certified.

As a result, the program appears to certify farms as meeting state water quality goals despite discharging pollutants well in excess of state standards. 

A flawed certification assessment
MCEA's review found that the disconnect between the assessment scores and monitored pollution levels was based largely on two primary program flaws:

  1. Reliance on profit-based fertilizer recommendations
    The assessment tool assigns nutrient management scores to farms based on adherence to University of Minnesota recommendations for nitrate application. However, those recommendations were established to maximize profitability for the producer and are not intended to serve as a water quality performance measure.

    In fact, the MDA’s own draft Nitrogen Fertilizer Management Plan recognizes nitrate loss at these rates is inevitable: “Nitrate losses frequently increase 10-20% when using the [U of M Recommend] optimum nitrogen rate" (1)

    For example, University of Minnesota Extension Best Management Practices for Nitrogen Use in South-Central Minnesota recommends spring-applied fertilization at 120-lb/acre. Table 2 of that same document concludes that this application rate will yield nitrate loss to drain tile systems at 13.7 mg/l – nearly 40 percent above the safe drinking water standard for nitrate of 10 mg/L.

    MCEA's assessment of the data from eight participating Discovery Farms Minnesota field sites show that annual average nitrate concentrations in drain tile effluent ranged from 14.81 mg/l to 50.52 mg/l over a 3 year period – well above the state drinking water standard of 10 mg/l. Despite these high pollution levels several of the site/year combinations scored high on the assessment to earn MAWQCP certification without any additional conservation practices.
  2. Artificial score inflation
    Originally pioneered by the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) Water Quality Index for Agriculture (NRCS WQI ag), the MAWQCP uses a standard scoring system to assess fertilizer management and conservation practices effectiveness for farm operations. Unfortunately, the MAWQCP artificially inflates both sets of scores, dramatically lowering the bar for certification for Minnesota farms.

    Fertilizer rate: while the NRCS system gives farms applying fertilizer at profit-maximizing rates a 5 of out 10, Minnesota scores that same practice a 9 out of 10, while also removing any penalty for drain tile effluent from those fields. As a result, scores for many farms assessed by the MAWQCP will be far higher than the same fields scored as underperforming by the NRCS.

    Conservation practice score adjustments: Both the NRCS and MAWQCP programs adjust scores upward for farms that install certain conservation practices. However, the MAWQCP greatly inflates the upward score adjustment for almost every conservation practice while providing little or no explanation for such departures. In addition, despite high nitrate levels in drain tile effluent from certified farms, only 1 of the 142 conservation practices on participating farms (cover crops on a single field) was capable of effectively reducing nitrate pollution in drain tile systems.

As a result of the above flaws, it is clear that the MAWQCP certification assessment fails to ensure that agricultural operations are managing water is a way that is "consistent with state water quality goals and standards" as required by state statute.

Transparency & Accountability
The report highlights a series of additional flaws with the program and its implementation that should be corrected before the program moves forward.

  • Incomplete pilot phase: MAWQCP was piloted in four selected watersheds beginning in June 2014. While the pilot phase was meant to evaluate and improve the program, the MDA announced the program would expand statewide without such improvements, and without consulting the program's advisory committee as required by statute. This premature expansion of the program in not justified by existing program participation or farm performance.
  • High public cost: Despite the disconnect between certification scores and water quality performance, the MAWQCP has been allocated $5,500,000 in Clean Water Fund amendment money in fiscal years 2014-2016, with total public costs reaching $11,350,000 in these years alone. FMR remains concerned that this level of investment is diverting resources away from programs that are capable of achieving the clean water outcomes that Minnesotans deserve.
  • Transparency & reporting: While MCEA's analysis on drain tile effluent from Discovery Farms Minnesota field sites was made possible through a Data Practices Act request (2), water quality data for other participating farms remains shielded from the public. To date, the MDA's reporting on the program includes information on farm participation and costs but excludes any information of water quality performance.
  • Science-based targeting: The program fails to utilize the state's existing modeling and targeted data.
    • While Watershed Restoration and Protection Strategies (WRAPS) are being developed in every watershed – MAWQCP assessments are not calibrated to the scale of landscape change required to achieve clean water as identified by these strategies. 
    • The program fails to target implementation in high-priority areas where conservation improvements will yield the best water quality outcomes per dollar of public investment.
  • Agency accountability: The program suffers from the absence of traditional administrative practices, including the lack of a conflict of interest policy, auditing procedure, or transparent certification tool revision process. These are standard administrative issues that should be corrected before the program advances.
  • Downstream impacts: The assessment tool fails to account for changes stream hydrology made by upstream installation of drain tile systems. Drain tile systems reduce water residence time and increase runoff levels from farm operations, making downstream bluffs, stream banks and ravines more prone to erosion, leading to higher levels of sediment pollution. The program assessment should be modified to account for these downstream hydrological impacts.

Doing more harm than good?
While the MAWQCP has the potential to be a useful tool for advancing adoption of clean water practices, the program in its current form comes up short. As a result, the MAWQCP may be doing more harm than good.

Granting farm operations immunity from clean water regulations at levels of performance well below state standards fundamentally misinforms producers as to the scale of landscape change and drainage reform required to achieve clean water. This sends the wrong message to Minnesota's agricultural producers.

Worse yet, statewide adoption may undermine farmer participation in future watershed clean up plans and other critical restoration and protection programs. Inaccurately informing certified farm operations that they are already meeting water quality goals will create a disconnect when science-based restoration programs produce restoration plans that call for improved farm performance. Such a disconnect may demoralize farm operators or promote rejection of science-based WRAPS goals that don't align with a less-rigorous certification approach.

Potentially undermining farmer participation in these clean up projects may irreparably harm Minnesota's ability to fully restore our surface waters; a price that is simply too steep to pay for any temporary gains made through the MAWQCP.

Fixes
While it is clear that the Minnesota Agricultural Water Quality Certification Program suffers from some fundamental flaws, we remain hopeful that MCEA's analysis and ongoing pressure from the conservation community will encourage corrective action by the MDA.

In particular, we are hopeful that program administrators will commit to the following:

  • Fix the scoring system to account for nitrate loss in agricultural drain tile. 
  • Fix the scoring system to include science-based conservation practice score adjustments.
  • Develop and use environmentally appropriate nutrient fertilizer recommendations that protect water quality.
  • Amend the assessment to account to hydrological impacts of drain tile systems on downstream water resources. 
  • Calibrate watershed-specific certification thresholds for each watershed in the state based on WRAPS modeling, rather that continue a one-size-fits-all 8.5 out of 10 scoring approach.
  • Focus pilot implementation in target areas that produce the greatest return on program investment.
  • Modify reporting procedures to include data on water quality outcomes in addition to program participation.
  • Indentify sustainable long-term funding sources that do not rely on Clean Water Fund money.
  • Secure appropriate resolution of standard administrative issues including conflict of interest, auditing, data management, reporting and tool revision policies.

Once these revisions to the program are made, the MAWQCP may indeed prove a promising approach for reducing agricultural runoff to Minnesota's surface waters.

However, until such fundamental program flaws are addressed, FMR recommends that the MDA suspend statewide adoption of the Minnesota Agricultural Water Quality Certification Program and reconvene the advisory committee to appropriately resolve each of the issues identified in MCEA's report.

 


  1. MDA Draft Nitrogen Fertilizer Management Plan. Page 37. http://www.mda.state.mn.us/chemicals/fertilizers/nutrient-mgmt/nitrogenplan/draftplan.aspx
  2. It should be noted that Discovery Farms Minnesota denied the initial request for data from MCEA, despite this data being collected and managed using public funds and in partnership with the MDA. Such data is by law public data as long as individual producer and farm location data is withheld. MCEA was able to submit a Data Practices Act request to the MDA to secure the information used in their report. See "Minnesota Agricultural Certainty Program: Is It Working for Water Quality." Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy. December 2015. Page 38.