Show Me the Money: Can Lake Pepin and Our Waterways be Saved with New Markets for Perennials?

Community Meeting Speaker: Shawn Schottler, Science Museum. St. Croix Watershed Research Station

By Anne Queenan

"It was always a little harder to convince people that the real struggle for Lake Pepin was not poison, but sediment," recalls Judy Krohn of Stockholm, Wisconsin. "We understood, but you couldn't always get people riled up about that. You could get them riled up about pollution from the sewage overflow from the treatment plant."

 Lake Pepin Legacy Alliance Community Meeting, September 16, 2016

Lake Pepin Legacy Alliance Community Meeting, September 16, 2016

Fifty citizens of the Lake Pepin area came to Stockholm, Wisconsin to learn more about Lake Pepin Legacy Alliance, the current conditions of the lake and possible solutions, at the WideSpot Performing Arts Center in September. Some of these Wisconsin residents have seen results from their advocacy efforts in earlier years which helped bring about tighter regulation on point source pollution (phosphorus) from wastewater treatment plants and infrastructure upstream in Minnesota. They have had a big, positive impact. However, the lake remains impaired because we have not been successful at addressing our non-point source of pollutants.

 Shawn Schottler, St Croix Watershed Research Station, speaking at the WideSpot Performing Arts Center in Stockholm, Wisconsin

Shawn Schottler, St Croix Watershed Research Station, speaking at the WideSpot Performing Arts Center in Stockholm, Wisconsin

Residents came to learn more from a Senior Scientist at the St. Croix Watershed Research Station, Shawn Schottler. Schottler evaluates land management strategies to inform agencies, legislators, non-profits and producer groups in Minnesota based on research on the impaired conditions of our waters.

Lake Pepin Legacy Alliance invited him to hear how things are looking for Lake Pepin.

 Center: Steve and Mary Hill. Steve is the son of Dorothy & Ed Hill, the founders of Citizens for a Clean Mississippi.

Center: Steve and Mary Hill. Steve is the son of Dorothy & Ed Hill, the founders of Citizens for a Clean Mississippi.

Lake Pepin has offered a unique opportunity for scientists to study and learn what's been settling from our Upper Mississippi River system through the centuries. This is possible because Lake Pepin is a riverine lake on a large river system that naturally acts as a catchment area where the flow of water slows down and the sediment settles. This sediment has told us many stories as it chronicles the deposits through time. Through the St. Croix Watershed Research Station's past research with sediment cores, we have learned volumes on the increased rate of sediment, phosphorous and nitrates from nonpoint sources and how that relates to our history of land use.

Since 2009, Lake Pepin Legacy Alliance has prioritized working with colleagues upstream to address the source, as well as downstream for the symptoms of the lake’s impairment. Today, high levels of suspended sediment and phosphorous as well as increased nitrogen levels continue to wreak havoc on the rivers, habitat and lake, as shown below.

 Courtesy of Shawn Schottler of St. Croix Watershed Research Station. Data assembled from Met Council, MPCA and USGS by Schottler.

Courtesy of Shawn Schottler of St. Croix Watershed Research Station. Data assembled from Met Council, MPCA and USGS by Schottler.

Water Quality Goals Falling Short

Given the financial reserves and extensive efforts that have been put into reducing nutrients, erosion and holding back the water, with the high levels of turbidity (sediment) and increased nitrogen, Schottler predicts the state water quality goals will not be met with current strategies.

The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency predicts that the necessary change on the land in order to meet water quality goals with best management practices comes with a daunting price tag - a prohibitive $1.5 billion per year to meet the Nitrate Reduction goals by the year 2040.  This is  reported in the MPCA Report Nitrogen in MN Surface Waters, June 2013.

If we’re to meet our long-term water quality goals and actually make significant progress on the level of impairment on the Mississippi River and Lake Pepin, the conversation needs to change, advised Schottler. It’s time to talk money and build markets.  In other words, it’s time to study where the opportunity is for large scale landscape change beneficial for the farmers and landowners who are trying to make a living on the land. 

 Schottler, Senior Scientist, St. Croix Watershed Research Station, Science Museum of MN

Schottler, Senior Scientist, St. Croix Watershed Research Station, Science Museum of MN

Schottler introduced a myriad of possibilities that touched on the economics of the farming business through innovation - opening doors to make a profit while building markets for diversified crops, perennials and conservation practices. “We grow corn because there’s a market for it, there’s a price support for it, and it’s insured,” said Schottler. “We’ve got to add the same things to perennial vegetation.“ Corn and water quality do not go hand in hand, amongst other things, due to the need to apply the nitrogen fertilizer for good yield. Why not see if it’s possible to make perennial crops profitable instead?

But first, why perennials?

Perennials have long and extensive roots that hold the water deeper and for a longer duration in the ground. The plants increase the evaporation of water, all of which lessens the volume hitting the rivers and slows the flow.  In turn, this helps reduce erosion.  

 Artist Deborah Foutch, Soil Horizon

Artist Deborah Foutch, Soil Horizon

In addition, perennials filter the air and naturally contribute healthy plant-building nitrogen into the soil.  This does not leach, like chemical fertilizer for corn, for example, where nitrates get into drainage water and the deeper ground water that provides drinking water.

They add organic matter and with deep roots and vegetation canopy cover, perennials hold the topsoil in place and prevent sediment from washing into the river.  With perennials, there’s vital habitat for threatened species of wildlife, like the Eastern Meadowlark, who thrives in tallgrass prairie,  and the Monarch Butterfly.

To address the farmer’s needs to make a profit from what he or she grows, some food for thought:

Why Not Tie Crop Insurance to Conservation (as well as Yield)?

Schottler pointed to one that does not require spending additional money, just re-apportioning it. Currently, the public (federal government) pays 63% of a farmer’s crop insurance, totaling more than ten billion dollars nationwide.   Crop insurance is paid based on a farmer’s yield and acres farmed, not for conservation practices. Concurrently, another six billion is paid to eventually counteract the cropping system’s negative impacts to water quality and loss of habitat through conservation programs and best management practices.  Schottler suggests the public consider taking the same amount of money and re-distributing it to reward the farmer not only for yield, but for conservation practices and perennials as well.  Specifically, he presents the option of tying crop insurance to conservation practices, as well as yield, spelling out various routes to accomplish this.

A Myriad of Potential Markets

 Photo by Anne Queenan. Madelia, MN

Photo by Anne Queenan. Madelia, MN

With recent legislation passed in Minnesota to create incentives for producers and companies to provide cellulosic materials as an alternative to fossil fuel, there’s a variety of potential markets to explore and develop, informs Schottler.  All of them potentially resourced from using one of Minnesota’s greatest assets – the land, and enhancing the soil, water and habitat while doing so. 

Determining the economic formulas would require expertise, collaboration and most likely, mandates.

For livestock feed consideration, intermediate wheat grass is being developed by the University of Minnesota that could possibly serve as a significant source.  For electricity, further examination is needed of what it would take to make it profitable to grow and refine switchgrass as a resource with coal or to eventually replace coal.

For the growing ethanol market, instead of incentivizing corn stover, (which is necessary to maintain soil health) as the primary cellulosic source, what are the costs and benefits to growing alfalfa  or another perennial that would help diversify the crops, provide food and habitat, and build healthy soil and water?

For background, corn stover is a crop residue, specifically, the stalks, cobs and corn leaves of the plant after the crop is harvested.  It reduces the use of tillage when left on the ground. In Minnesota, an estimated eight million acres are planted to corn, and 29% of the corn market is converted to ethanol.  Across the country, here’s a look at the national corn market in 2013:

With such abundance of land, and leadership in innovation, one does wonder what is possible as well as profitable. And what does it take as an informed society to get there?

Feedback from LPLA Members

 Leon Morrison, No-Till farmer asks about water quality impact of cover crops.

Leon Morrison, No-Till farmer asks about water quality impact of cover crops.

One of the attendees, Leon Morrison, an LPLA member who practices No-Till on his farm of 300 acres of crop, hay, and alfalfa, asked about the value of cover crops. Schottler validated their benefits for water, lack of habitat benefits, and ran the math on the cost to meet water quality goals with continuous cover:  $50 an acre is paid in Minnesota to the farmer.  However, this costs $750 million a year statewide for 15 million continuous acres of cover crop. 

 Community Dialogue at LPLA September Meeting

Community Dialogue at LPLA September Meeting

Later, when the audience was asked what resonated the most for them after listening to the presentations, several thoughtful answers were given. Morrison, who won a conservation award in 2014 for his farming in Ellsworth, offered what resonated the most for him.  To make some real progress, he said, perhaps it the right time to tie crop insurance to perennials, No-Till and other conservation measures.  Judy Krohn recalls the image of the butterfly without enough habitat and the value of providing vital habitat.  “We’re sort of speaking for the things around us that can’t speak.  The fish and the trees and the butterflies can’t really speak for their own survival and we have to speak for them.”