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Do Minnesota farmers pollute too much?

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ST. PAUL - Minnesota city and conservation leaders say farmers contribute most of the pollution to state waters but do too little to prevent the damage or fix it.

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They told reporters Tuesday that the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency needs to take action by ordering farmers to lower their pollution contribution.

"It is not fair when only the city residents pay the bills," said Alexandria Mayor Dan Ness, president of the League of Minnesota Cities.

MPCA officials said they cannot order farmers to stop polluting and are in the middle of working out clean-up plans. A farm leader decried what he called "a finger-pointing thing" by city and conservation leaders.

President Doug Peterson of the Minnesota Farmers' Union said "you can't wave your hand" and farm pollution automatically disappears. "It still is going to take some time to have a menu in place and it still has to go through the legislative process."

MPCA officials said they already are in the process of deciding what should be done to clean the state's waters and taking action before having all the facts would be premature.

Also, the Dayton administration and federal officials are working on a program to provide financial incentives for farmers to increase conservation practices, and thus decrease run-off pollution.

But the city-conservationist coalition said action is needed now, and put down the state-federal program as voluntary.

"We have been trying voluntary practices since the dust bowl," Whitney Clark said. "People do the things you require them to do, they don't do things you ask them nicely to do."

A news release said farmers need to "be accountable for cleaning up their share of run-off pollution." While the release did not list specifics they want the state to do, Clark of the Friends of the Mississippi River did say that farmers should be required to improve their conservation practices, such as adding buffer strips of plants near water to reduce pollution.

Ness used an example from the southern Twin Cities, saying cities there must pay $1 billion to clean up the Mississippi and Minnesota rivers in their areas.

Clark said farmers contribute 13 times the pollution to Minnesota waters than cities.

"This is Minnesota's moment of truth," he said.

Gaylen Reetz, director of the MPCA's Watershed Division, said plans to clean up the state's 81 major watersheds should be ready by 2018. However, he added, if there are no legal roadblocks, plans to clean up some south Twin Cities water should be ready in a year.

Reetz said the situation must be studied so officials can draw up plans that work. He said there are many variables from watershed to watershed, so one plan will not work statewide.

Michael McKay of the Lake Pepin Legacy Alliance and general manager of the St. James Hotel in Red Wing said pollution from farms is hurting tourism and recreational businesses.

"No one wants to play in or around dirty water," he said.

However, in an interview he said that some farmers are doing a good job in curtailing pollution. Also, he said, farmers face a difficult task of dealing with many local, state and federal agencies on pollution issues.

Another difficult task for farmers is making money if they must pay for added conservation practices, Peterson said. Farmers are paid what buyers are willing to pay, and they cannot raise their products' prices to get money to pay for new requirements, he said.

Requirements like cities and conservationists want could drive up prices on most goods, he added. It also could force small farmers to sell to larger operations, he said.

"They don't see the larger picture of costs involved," Peterson said. "That is what is so sad to me."

Announcements such as by the cities and conservation groups Tuesday cause divisiveness, Peterson said, which does not help to solve the problem.

Peterson had a message to city and conservation leaders: "We'll work with you, but you have to be willing to work with us."

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