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In January, Minnesota's top agriculture and environmental leaders gathered at a triumphant news conference to announce a $9 million federal grant for a novel project to help farmers protect streams and rivers from the chemicals that come off their land.

A one-year trial had been a resounding success, Agriculture Commissioner Dave Frederickson announced. The federal money, combined with another $11 million from the state, would finance a full-scale launch. It would make Minnesota a national leader in showing how farmers will step up to solve one of the country's most grievous environmental problems — agricultural water pollution.

But a growing chorus of critics is saying not so fast. Some say the project won't do enough to protect the water and that its effectiveness can't be measured. Others say it's not ready for prime time because its success with farmers so far has been spotty.

The surprisingly sharp discord that has erupted around the Water Quality Certification Program reflects a growing urgency about the best way to use $110 million a year in Legacy funding devoted to clean water. Even though the Legacy Amendment has 20 years of life left, many fear that Minnesota is running out of time to reverse a landscape-sized problem that was decades in the making.

And this particular investment "falls short of its promotion," said Steve Morse, executive director of the Minnesota Environmental Partnership, which lobbies on behalf of environmental groups. In a state where chemically intensive agriculture occupies about half the land, the effort is a waste of money because it can never achieve "the scale needed to correct the problem," he said.

Officials from the Minnesota Department of Agriculture say the program is a major step in on-farm conservation and water protection. It is unique because it uses a simple score to grade each farm as whole, and provides expert technical advice to help farmers design water-protection plans specific to each field.

Widespread resistance

Nothing will ever eliminate all agricultural water pollution, said assistant Agriculture Commissioner Matt Wohlman, "but I think we will see measurable results here in Minnesota."

But resistance to the effort is broad. In December, the state's Clean Water Council, which oversees Legacy money for clean water, refused to recommend the proposed increase in funding. Environmental groups are rallying against more taxpayer investment in a project without proven results. Now some key Republican legislators may put the brakes on.

"I don't think we are ready to go statewide," said Rep. Paul Torkelson, R-Hanska, a farmer who sits on the House environment committee and the Legacy Finance Committee.

The certification program was initiated with great fanfare nearly three years ago. Gov Mark Dayton stood with the head of the Environmental Protection Agency, the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture and other top officials to announce the first federal-state partnership in farm conservation. The ambitious strategy would give farmers a green seal of approval if they acted voluntarily to protect the water from fertilizer, soil erosion and other contamination. In return, they would be exempt from any new water-quality regulations — a "certainty" designed to woo farmers into signing up.

The idea was driven by a combination of political and fiscal realities that still stand. Farms are not covered by the federal Clean Water Act, the nation's main water pollution law, and regulating farmers faces political hurdles. At the same time, funding for long-standing farm conservation programs has been severely cut, and their financial incentives cannot compete with high commodity prices or federal subsidies that spur farmers to increase production.

Last year, with $3 million in Legacy funds and $3 million from the USDA, the state Agriculture Department started recruiting farmers in four watersheds. So far, just 30 farmers have succeeded in winning the green certification sign that they can post on their driveways, but some 260 more are in the process, officials say.

"It's somewhat difficult to attain," said Ken Schefers, a farmer near Paynesville who served on the program's advisory board, and was one of the first to sign up. He and his family raise a variety of crops and livestock, and he was already pretty water-conscious, he said. Even so, he had to conduct more soil tests and track his manure applications. He also added more grass buffers around his ditches and fields.

Mark Lefebvre, a specialist with the Stearns County Soil and Water Conservation District who works full-time for the certification program, said the scoring system, which rates farms from 1 to 10, is the best educational tool he's ever used in working with farmers.

"They can see their score on paper in black and white," he said.

Others say the scoring system, in practice, does little to protect the water. Kris Sigford, a water quality specialist with the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy, said it does a poor job of accounting for the pesticides and nitrogen fertilizer lost through drainage systems that lie beneath a huge portion of the state's fields. That source alone makes up more than a third of the nitrogen that pollutes the state's streams and lakes.

Effectiveness questioned

Conservation experts, including some members of the advisory board, point out that the scoring system also ignores organic pest control measures, while giving high marks to chemically intensive methods, as long as farmers use them correctly. Nor does it identify which waters are affected by specific farms, or track whether any changes on a farm make a difference.

In short, it is "untethered" from the state's water quality goals and strategies, said Trevor Russell, water program director at Friends of the Mississippi River.

At its heart, the disagreement reflects a deep divide in Minnesota over how to manage what many view as the state's most dire pollution problem.

Because farms are not regulated, any effort to control the pollution they produce is voluntary, said Pat Flowers, chair of the Clean Water Council. "All you can do is try to reduce it," he said. "That's the goal of [this] program."

Flowers said environmental advocates have a point when they call for tougher laws and say 40 years of voluntary efforts like Water Quality Certification aren't working. "But that's a decision for the country to make," Flowers said.

For now, the program's future rests with the Legislature. If it doesn't put up the state's portion, $5 million over the next two years, the Agriculture Department will lose some of the federal money. Dayton's proposed budget includes the $5 million; the Clean Water Council wants to give it half that amount.

In coming weeks, legislative committees will consider dozens of clean water projects across the state, and this one is getting some special attention.

"I am struggling with that decision even as we speak," said Torkelson.

Josephine Marcotty • 612-673-7394