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Agriculture committee begins debate on proposed nitrogen rule

When Gov. Mark Dayton proposed new rules to reduce nitrate levels in the state’s drinking water March 6, leaders of the House agriculture committees responded quickly, issuing a joint statement that urged the governor to “abandon his efforts to enforce this unpopular proposition.”

Those controversial nitrate rules were a focus of the House Agriculture Policy Committee meeting Thursday as administration officials appeared to explain Dayton’s proposal even as members considered one bill that would hamper its adoption and another that would stop it altogether.

Agriculture Commissioner Dave Frederickson presents a department update on its proposed Nitrogen Fertilizer Rule to members of the House Agriculture Policy Committee March 15. Photo by Andrew VonBank

Sponsored by Rep. Jeff Backer (R-Browns Valley), HF2887 would prohibit the Department of Agriculture from adopting the rules’ requirements unless they are specifically approved by law. The companion, SF2720, is sponsored by Sen. Mark Johnson (R-East Grand Forks) and awaits action by the Senate Agriculture, Rural Development, and Housing Policy Committee. It was approved by the committee and re-referred to the House Government Operations and Elections Policy Committee. 

The bill sponsored by Rep. Steve Green (R-Fosston), HF2727, would prohibit the department from adopting the rule altogether. Its companion, SF2449, is sponsored by Sen. Paul Utke (R-Park Rapids) and also awaits action by the Senate agriculture policy committee. It was laid over for possible omnibus bill inclusion.

Agriculture Commissioner Dave Frederickson gave the committee an overview of the process leading to the new proposals, which include restricting the application of fertilizer in “vulnerable” areas of the state that have more porous soils, and during the fall in drinking water supply management areas, although certain exceptions would be made.

WATCH Agriculture committee discussion of the bill 

Frederickson said Minnesota first developed a nitrogen management plan in 1990, then began a five-year revision process in 2010. Last summer, the department released a draft of the proposed rule to gain feedback, and would continue those conversations to further refine Dayton’s most recent proposal.

Elevated nitrate levels in drinking water can be harmful to humans and Frederickson said more than 50 percent of Minnesotans rely on groundwater-based public water systems.

“We do have a problem with nitrates in our groundwater and, as policymakers, we have a legal and we have a moral obligation to address it.”

However, Kirby Hettver, president of the Minnesota Corn Growers Association, said his members had “concerns” about the proposed rule. The association sent Dayton a letter today detailing those concerns and asking the governor to release the full draft of the proposed nitrogen rule, authorize a 90-day comment period on it, and provide detailed interactive maps that would allow individual farmers to see how they would be impacted.

Hettver said farmers understand the importance of taking care of the land and are already doing their part, and that the members of his association had an “ambitious” goal.

“Minnesota’s corn farmers hope to become the most sustainable, environmentally responsible corn farmers in the United States,” Hettver said.


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