Sunday, September 02, 2012

Consequences

I was discouraged to read about an increasing trend in my home state of Minnesota.  Minnesota Farm Drain Tiling: Better Crops, But at What Cost? by Dennis Lien and Dave Orrick, Pioneer Press (August 31, 2012).

Farmers, largely in response to high land values and high prices for corn and soybean commodity crops, are installing drainage tiles at record rates.
From southeastern Minnesota's porous karst to the fertile Red River Valley, machines and workers have been surveying the land with GPS technology, digging trench lines, unrolling flexible plastic drainage tubing and burying it -- all to maximize tillable acreage and to make farming operations more productive and profitable.
Farming has already been profitable in recent years in Minnesota, and many farmers have the money to, as they say, plow back into the land. Investments in the farming operation present tax advantages and serve to increase the acreage under production and the productivity of that land.

There are, however, serious adverse consequences.
Water that once stayed on land during wet periods now increasingly filters into underground tile and then courses into ditches, streams and rivers. There, critics contend, more runoff contributes to higher flows that lead to more frequent and severe flooding, erosion of stream banks and dirtier water.  In some places, grassy areas that once harbored wildlife are being plowed under and tiled to plant corn and soybeans.
The article discussed the hidden public cost as cities and residents all down the Mississippi and Minnesota Rivers battle flooding and related clean up costs. Minnesota alone will need to spend hundreds of millions of dollars in coming years to get lakes and rivers to meet the minimum Clean Water Act water-quality standards. The article notes that "[s]ediment from riverbanks and farm fields and agricultural pollutants are among the biggest problems."

Little is known about how much tiling is being done. Tom Kalahar, conservation technician for the Renville County Soil and Water Conservation District reports that "[i]t's one of the best-kept secrets in the world. There is very little data being gathered. It's the hidden infrastructure that the public doesn't have a clue about. No government agency wants to regulate tiling because (regulation) is politically unpopular with the ag community."

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