Monday, February 22, 2016

Might a private ditch need an industrial point source discharge permit?

Late last month, Governor Dayton backed "off water-buffer strip plan for private ditches." He "said he pulled back on the private ditch efforts and ordered the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources to stop mapping them after Republicans threatened to torpedo water quality projects Dayton's seeking in a public works spending bill in the coming session." I can understand the Governor's concerns, although I'm appalled at the quality of Minnesota's waters and the snail's pace rate at which we can expect them to attain federally mandated standards. I also believe the world is full of carrots and sticks.

I'm delighted that the Governor is convening a water summit later this week. If Minnesota continues to be faced with farmers and farm organizations who want to continue a basically free ride while the rest of us pay for wastewater and stormwater treatment, maybe we need to take another look at the language from the federal Clean Water Act, which defines Point Source as:
[A]ny discernable, confined and discrete conveyance, including but not limited to any pipe, ditch, channel, tunnel, conduit, well, discrete fissure, container, rolling stock, concentrated animal feeding operation, or vessel or other floating craft, from which pollutants are or may be discharged. This term does not include agricultural stormwater discharges and return flows from irrigated agriculture (emphasis added).27
is field corn really a "food crop?"
is field corn really a "food crop?"
Photo by J. Harrington

Perhaps some creative, clever, clean water or environmental advocacy non-profit organization could point out to a judge or legislator that a private ditch owner, not subject to buffer strips, should be treated as a point source discharge, just like any other industrial operation. If the owner(s) of the private ditch object, the burden should fall to the ditch owner(s) to prove, year after year, that the only flows to and through the ditch are agricultural stormwater and return flows from irrigated agriculture. Perhaps those who issue groundwater permits could be faced with a requirement to not issue permits that result in return flows to uncontrolled private ditches.

We're not going to achieve climate change goals by pursuing business as usual. The same concern applies to attaining water quality standards. Cities and industries are no long the major problems affecting water quality. Our heavily subsidized industrial agriculture system is. I don't believe it would be that difficult to craft appropriate exemptions of organic farms or those planted in perennial grasses. Is it time to treat industrial agriculture dischargers as the industries they are? See if you can guess what I think.

Toward the end of May last year, we shared a Wendell Berry poem I think best fits today's posting. Here's the link to that post.

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