Field Notes
Field Notes

Three ways experts think Minnesota could make measurable progress on our clean water conundrum

Wednesday, August 15, 2018
Posted by
Greg Seitz

Boating slowly across Madison Lake in southern Minnesota


Besides Prince, the Mall of America, and last winter’s frigid Superbowl, Minnesota is probably best known for its water. We like to swim in it, fish in it, boat in it, and just look at it.

Water makes winter and mosquitoes worth enduring.

But today, 40 percent of the state’s lakes are fouled, failing to meet standards for swimming, drinking, or fishing.

The same is true from Oregon to Ohio and beyond: Increased runoff carries nutrients and sediments into lakes and rivers, muddying waters and feeding algae that can produce deadly toxins. When water seeps into aquifers in agricultural areas, the pollutants it carries can contaminate drinking water.

Sources of Nitrogen to Minnesota surface waters chart

Progress is possible

Minnesotans need our water to be clean so we can drink it, fish and swim in it, and pass it to future generations in good shape. The state also depends on our agricultural economy, which provides food, fuel, and jobs.

The conflict between clean water and farming seems to pit the two critical resources against each other. It presents a quandary, and difficult decisions. 

But improving Minnesota’s water is not impossible. In fact, we basically know what needs to be done. It's just that the solutions are complicated, and currently costly.

Last year, Research Station scientists Drs. Shawn Schottler and Daniel Engstrom were included in a technical panel convened by the University of Minnesota to develop science-based strategies to promote clean water and strengthen farming. The sessions brought together “some of the best minds in agriculture research, economics, policy, and agribusiness.”

Here is what the panel told Governor Mark Dayton are the best ways to make progress, in a report titled “Moving the Needle: Improving Water Quality in Minnesota While Developing Our Agricultural Economy.”

1. Diversify our crop portfolio

Convert a minimum of 10 percent of land currently planted with corn and soybeans to profitable perennial crops.

Intermediate wheatgrass, or Kernza

Environmental Challenge: Corn loves nitrogen. The crop needs a lot of it, so it’s applied to fields to achieve the growth demanded in today’s market. To reduce the amount of nitrogen making it into groundwater and lakes and rivers, Minnesota needs to substitute perennial plants, cover crops, prairie, and other landscapes for one out of ten corn acres in the state.

“It is very difficult or impossible to substantially reduce stream nitrate loads in agricultural areas of the state without reducing corn acreage,” the participants reported.

Economic Challenge: Corn is a profitable crop — and there’s always someone willing to buy it, whether for animal feed or ethanol production or numerous other uses. Other crops don’t yet have that kind of reliable market, so they are more financially risky to grow.

Solutions: Find ways to make perennial crops economically competitive (see #3). The panel recommended research and analysis of crops, costs, and markets. Right now, scientists, farmers, and other are working to identify the most effective strategies for both farmers and water.

2. Slow down runoff

Hold runoff back using perennial crops, wetlands, and managing agricultural drainage systems.

Wetland recreation to hold back water on the landscape before reaching rivers.

Environmental Challenge: The faster rain runs off the land, the more soil and pollutants it carries, and the faster and more furious the flows. High river flows can erode stream banks and carry the soil downstream where it degrades water quality and fills our lakes and reservoirs.

More water than natural runs off most farm fields today. Underground drainage systems flush rain from fields to prevent flooding, and both corn and soybeans tend to leave the soil bare for months in the springtime. Without anything growing, a lot less rain evaporates back into the atmosphere. There are also no roots to hold soil in place, and muddy, nutrient-rich runoff is the result.

Economic Challenge: If farmers can't plant crops on a piece of land, it's simply not profitable property. To maximize usable acres, wet areas are often drained to allow for planting.

It also costs money to design drainage that best protects the water downstream.

Corn and soybeans are also favored by farm economics and policy, and supported by public subsidies. For anyone trying to make a living as a farmer, they are the safest investment.

Solutions: Designing drainage systems to limit the volume of water flushing off fields, and minimize nutrients in the discharge. This can be done using cover crops and perennial crops, and holding water on the surface for slower release with retention basins, wetlands, ponds, and other practices.

Permits would allow consistent standards, and fees could be used to provide assistance to farmers seeking to retrofit their existing drainage systems. Authorities could be made accountable for the water flowing into our lakes and streams from drainage ditches.

3. Make the solutions pay

Develop new agricultural markets and economic incentives to fund systemic changes.

Economic challenge: Cover crops aren’t crops unless someone wants to buy them. Continuous land cover will only replace short-lived crops when they can be equally profitable.

Most perennial vegetation currently needs larger, more stable markets to compete with corn and soybeans.

Solutions: To encourage the adoption of such perennial vegetation — with all its benefits — we can make funding decisions and develop markets where farmers can sell products. 

Click on the sidebar infographic for more information about one opportunity.

By improving clean water certification for farmers, we can also make it easier for them to connect with markets for their products.


Time to act

Solving the conundrum of agricultural impacts on water requires a nationwide effort. Minnesota can set an example in developing a more sustainable agricultural system — and ensuring our farmers thrive.

With all our state’s water, and all our farms, we have the expertise to provide leadership that protects our lakes and rivers, and our agricultural economy.

The sooner we get started, the better. Even so, patience will be required, as there will be a significant time lag between when we start making changes and start seeing improvements in our waters. We have already put a lot of nitrogen and phosphorus on the land and in our sediments, and it can cycle through the system for decades.

It will also take time to change the agricultural industry – just like it took decades to reach the high productivity of today’s corn and soybean farms.


1. ‘Moving the Needle’: Improving Water Quality in Minnesota While Developing Our Agricultural Economy (PDF)
Prepared for The Honorable Mark Dayton Governor of Minnesota by The Water Resources Center University of Minnesota, January 25, 2017

Process supported in part by funding from the McKnight Foundation through the Friends of the Mississippi River.

  • Boating across Madison Lake in southern Minnesota while collecting water and sediment samples to study harmful algae blooms. (Greg Seitz, St. Croix Watershed Research Station)
  • Nitrogen, Minnesota Pollution Control Agency
  • Intermediate wheatgrass, marketed as Kernza, The Land Institute
  • Wetland reconstruction, Minnesota Public Drainage Manual, Board of Water and Soil Resources
  • Harvesting perennial grasses, U.S. Department of Agriculture
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