The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources said Thursday that it will not order a family farm in the Pineland Sands area to complete a major water quality study to dig an irrigation well, a case that caught the attention of farming groups, lawmakers and environmental groups around the state.
The DNR’s decision followed months of reviews, extensions and delays. Agency staff concluded that any environmental effects from the proposed well are “minimal in nature.”
The decision, a win for the growing number of potato farmers in the region, leaves questions about how or whether the DNR will address the area’s increasing nitrate contamination in drinking water as more timberland is converted to row crops and potato fields.
“The DNR remains concerned about environmental effects, specifically groundwater impacts, associated with the loss of forest lands and increased irrigation in the Pineland Sands area,” DNR Assistant Commissioner Jess Richards said in a statement. “We are evaluating options for addressing these concerns going forward.”
Cattle farmer Tim Nolte of Sebeka has been seeking three permits to irrigate about 300 acres of former timberland in Wadena County.
While the acreage is just a sliver of the timberland that has been converted to row crops in central Minnesota, the DNR ordered Nolte to complete an environmental study to pinpoint the effects his irrigation well would have on the region before it would issue the permits. The DNR used the review to decide whether Nolte must provide a more comprehensive study, called an environmental-impact statement, which could have tied the project up for years.
Nolte completed his study this spring. It attracted more than 150 comments from concerned farmers, neighbors and national and state environmental groups while the DNR reviewed it.
Although the DNR’s decision clears the way for Nolte to move forward, he hasn’t received his permits yet. He still needs water appropriation permits from the DNR, which could include some limits on nitrogen fertilizer and pesticide use.
When reached by phone, Nolte said the permit process still “has a long way to go” and he didn’t want to comment until he had the permits in hand.
Environmental groups have 30 days to appeal the decision.
The fight over water use and the clearing of woods in central Minnesota has been simmering for years, as nitrate contamination has become more of a problem in drinking water throughout the Pineland Sands region, which covers parts of Hubbard, Wadena, Cass and Becker counties.
A major question hanging over the Nolte project is whether farming giant R.D. Offutt is involved.
The Fargo-based potato company, which has become one of the largest irrigators in Minnesota, sold the land to Nolte. The company had applied for irrigation permits at the site just a few years ago as part of a major project that would have included more than 50 wells to irrigate thousands of acres of potato fields. The DNR held off approving the permits, ordering the company to first complete the same environmental study it demanded of Nolte.
Offutt instead withdrew most of its applications, and the DNR agreed to kill the environmental study.
But the original land deed with Nolte included a provision to rent the land back to the company every few years once it was irrigated to grow potatoes as part of a crop rotation, several environmental groups have noted. That provision was later removed.
By selling the land to a single family and renting it back, R.D. Offutt has essentially found a backdoor way to expand its operations without paying for the major environmental review, the Environmental Working Group argued to the DNR.
In its decision, the DNR wrote that the Nolte family has no agreement in place to lease the land back to Offutt. Without an agreement in place, the project did not need to be reviewed cumulatively with other potential or planned expansions from the company, the agency said.
The Environmental Working Group, a tax-exempt nonprofit with headquarters in Washington, D.C., is evaluating whether to appeal, said Jamie Konopacky, the organization’s Midwest director.
A larger, regional study on the effects of incremental potato conversions on the area is critical, she said.
“Water quality is a major concern and the DNR has just completely, inadequately addressed our comments,” Konopacky said.