Friday, January 20, 2012

New Farm-Water Quality "Regulatory Certainty" Strategy to be Piloted in Minnesota

One of the more significant River Basin related news items for the week was a Tuesday announcement by Minnesota Governor Mark Dayton, together with U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Secretary Tom Vilsack and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Lisa Jackson, of a new program to be piloted in Minnesota to increase voluntary use of farm conservation practices. The related USDA news release can be seen here.

The program is part of a wider federal strategy that would effectively give farmers "certainty" with respect to water quality regulations if they voluntarily choose to put land conservation practices in place for the benefit of improved water quality. Agricultural producers who implement a significant degree of conservation practices to reduce nutrient run-off and erosion would receive assurance (or "certainty") from Minnesota that their farms will meet the state's water quality standards and goals throughout the duration of the certainty agreement.

According to the USDA news release, the USDA and EPA will "offer support to Minnesota in developing its certainty process for water quality improvements on private agricultural lands and eligible tribal lands in high priority watersheds. While this idea is new to protection of water quality, 'certainty agreements' have been successful for encouraging private landowners to conserve wildlife habitat."

Details of the program have yet to be developed, and Minnesota plans to form a Technical Advisory Committee to help it develop those details. That committee will solicit input from stakeholders in designing the initiative. One group of stakeholders, the Minnesota Environmental Partnership, responded to Tuesday's announcement with a press releasesetting forth the key elements that the Partnership believes "any agricultural water pollution clean-up program must" contain, including ensuring water quality will meet standards, targeting resources to the greatest needs, ensuring accountability from farm operators, and being consistent with existing pollution reduction programs and laws.

EPA has been exploring a variety of certainty mechanisms in conjunction with USDA and several states for some time, and the Minnesota pilot certainty initiative could be viewed as one component of the Obama Administration's draft action plan to address the challenges facing ocean, coastal, and Great Lakes resources, announced on January 12 and reported on here last week. Among other goals, that action plan calls for the "development of State regulatory certainty programs for reducing nutrient and sediment loads that will accelerate the adoption of voluntary conservation efforts" by 2013.

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