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New Regulatory Certainty Program Announced in Minnesota

January 18, 2012

On Tuesday, January 17, Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Lisa Jackson, Minnesota Governor Mark Dayton, and USDA’s Chief of the Natural Resources Conservation Service Dave White met in Minnesota to announce a new partnership between the State, USDA, and EPA.  Through the partnership, producers would receive immunity, also known as regulatory assurance or certainty, from regulation under Minnesota’s water quality standards in exchange for the implementation of certain conservation activities.

According to yesterday’s press release, the new state program is “designed to increase the voluntary adoption of conservation practices that protect local rivers, streams and other waters by reducing fertilizer run-off and soil erosion.  Through this partnership, producers who undertake a substantial level of conservation activities to reduce nutrient run-off and erosion, will receive assurance from the state that their farms will meet Minnesota’s water quality standards and goals during the life of the agreement.”

Through a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU), USDA and EPA will work with the State to develop a certainty framework, which will be applied in priority watersheds.  It is not yet clear how those watersheds will be determined.  The MOU is the first step in developing what has been dubbed the Minnesota Agricultural Water Quality Certification Program (AWQCP), which includes USDA, EPA, Minnesota Department of Agriculture, Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, Minnesota Board of Water and Soil Resources, and Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.

According to the press release, “Minnesota and its partners will establish a Technical Advisory Committee to develop the certification program that will support the state’s water quality standards and goals.  The committee will solicit input from stakeholders in designing criteria to provide certainty for producers who have voluntarily attained or maintained a certain level of water quality improvements on their agricultural land.  Minnesota will test the program in several pilot watersheds.”

Beyond the information contained in the release, very little is known about the new certainty program.  It remains unclear, for example, which “conservation activities” will be offered to producers and through what program or programs they will be offered.  There is little information about what type of monitoring, verification, and reporting mechanisms will be built into the program.  There has also been no indication as to whether or not concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) that are regulated as point sources of pollution under the Clean Water Act will be eligible to sign certainty agreements. Rumor has it that the “certainty” period would run ten years, though that is unconfirmed.

The most detailed information available at this point is a two page conceptual document issued by EPA and USDA last summer.  It outlines the general concept, with the details to be worked out with particular states.

The Minnesota proposal appears to bear some resemblance, though significant differences, from the Michigan Agriculture Environmental Assurance Program and the Louisiana Master Farmer Program.

Coverage of the announcement included articles in the Pioneer Press and in the Star Tribune.

The Minnesota Environmental Partnership also issued this statement as an initial response to the announcement.

We look forward to learning more about the new Minnesota partnership in the coming months.  Clearly, the devil will be in the details, which will determine whether this is a step forward or not.

Categories: Conservation, Energy & Environment

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