A Wadena County father and son say the process of getting an irrigation well permit is becoming more difficult and outside influences are putting further strain on the ability of local farmers to convert dry land to irrigated crop land.

Verndale area farmers Brian and Nathan Roth attended a recent Wadena County Commission meeting asking commissioners to support an amendment to the current irrigation petitioning process through the Minnesota DNR. Brian said a recent incident in the county from those seeking to put a stop to an irrigation well raised some red flags. A closer look at the petition showed that most of the signers of the petition were not from the area. Roth is seeking that signers of a petition against a Wadena County project must be from Wadena County.

"What we have going on in Wadena County is that we have people outside of the county that have an interest in what is going on with the irrigation permitting process," Brian said. "What I am trying to address here is that if we are going to have a petition process in the state of Minnesota that we have it from within the residents of Wadena County. That means nobody from the Twin Cities or from outside of our county."

The petition in question includes 167 signers, many from the Hackensack and Backus area, where the petition representative, Mike Tauber, lives. Of those signers that included their city, just over 30 were from Wadena County.

Currently, a citizen petition must have 100 signatures from Minnesota state residents before going to the DNR, Brian explained. Under those circumstances, you could go to any Vikings football game and state your concerns and likely get hundreds of signatures, Brian said. But the DNR must then look to determine if there is value to the concern.

The situation Roth mentioned involved Wadena County farmer Tim Nolte who applied for an irrigation well on his land. If the DNR deems the concern worth further review, Nolte has to pay for a costly environmental assessment and his plans for developing an irrigated field are put on hold.

Commissioner Chuck Horsager said one question that came up at a Soil and Water Conservation District meeting prior to this meeting was the concern that a petitioner perhaps just on the other side of the county line from a proposed project would not be able to sign the petition.

"My proposal is residents of Wadena County -- period," Brian said.

DNR stance

That limited proposal, however, puts up red flags for DNR staff like Randall Doneen, who was contacted after the meeting. Doneen, conservation assistance and regulation section manager, said there are issues with limiting signatures to county residents only.

"Many environmental effects can be transferred across county lines and people may care about public resources such as water and wildlife, even if they don’t reside in the county where a project is proposed," Doneen wrote in an email. "The rights of citizens to petition their government is fundamental to the American way of life. Placing additional restrictions on a petition process does not align with recent efforts for government to be more transparent and engaged with potentially affected interests. Citizen Petitions generally are not big concerns. Very few are submitted each year and only a small percentage of those submitted result in the ordering of an EAW."

When the Pineland Sands Area Citizen Petition came in, the EAW was pretty straightforward, Doneen said.

"We have information that the aquifers in the Pineland Sands Area are at risk from contamination of nitrates," Doneen continued in his email. "The proposed irrigation of an additional 300 acres in this area could result in additional nitrates reaching the aquifer. It is a potential cumulative effect, where the current proposal is small, but could combine with many other contributions, creating a bigger issue. The facts in this case and the rules regarding consideration of petitions led us ordering an EAW in response to the petition."

Doneen shared that the process of appropriating water permits and environmental reviews are separate regulatory processes. Very few appropriations for agricultural irrigation are subject to environmental review. But the Citizen Petition in this case prompted further review. While citizen petitions are very rare, the Pineland Sands area has been the site of three petitions since 2015.

Commissioners on board

Wadena County Planning and Zoning superintendent Deana Malone described the resolution before the commissioners as a show of support, to affect change, as the parameters have made things more difficult on farmers.

"It's to jump start some change at that level," Malone said

Commissioners approved of the resolution with all in favor except Commissioner Jon Kangas, who represents the northwest part of the county, where there has been significant attention on the recent conversion to the Pineland Sands Aquifer from forest to agricultural use.

Kangas said he lives just outside Menahga and has friends and family throughout the Huntersville Forest area, an area that was once known for its forests but is now becoming more potato fields. He said many property owners have shallow wells.

"These aquifers cross county lines, so these people may be affected," Kangas said. Kangas said concerns are brought up regularly in his community so he could not support the resolution as is.

"Up in District 5 there are a lot of concerns about the number of irrigation wells and the amount of pumping that's going on," Kangas said.

Brian Roth responded saying the DNR is on top of water monitoring. He said the DNR has stated that there is no issue with water quantity in the Pineland Sands Aquifer.

Nathan Roth also spoke up saying that if the DNR can prove that there is a concern, they can take back a well permit.

"They can shut down any well permit, for any reason they want to, at anytime," Roth said.

The approved resolution notes that Wadena County recognizes agriculture as a primary land use in the county; and that "it is the opinion of the Wadena County Board of Commissioners that this type of petition provides an opportunity for people who are not impacted by the irrigation well to take advantage of the process for opposition to hold applications for permits in limbo or to be denied without cause;" and that the board "supports and recommends the Minnesota Environmental Quality Board and the Department of Natural Resources amend the parameters used for acceptable opposition to a permit for irrigation to limit the valid signers of a petition to residents of the County in which the permit is being requested."

Process of getting an irrigation well

"The whole petition process has really gotten tough because these groups are weaponizing it," Brian said. "It's making our process a lot harder."

In prior years, maybe 20 years ago, Brian said farmers could do test-drilling to find a quality site. When they found that site, they sent the site location to the DNR. Now, they send a location to the DNR and the DNR has to approve of the location before any test drilling is to be done. What the DNR looks for is how that well may affect other area wells, wetlands or even trout streams, Roth said.

Doneen explained that the relatively new step includes the request for a Preliminary Well Construction Assessment. This was implemented to assist potential water users with risk management decisions prior to drilling a well. The application gives DNR information about the proposed well location, depth, water use, etc.

"Essentially, if there are known issues in the area, we let them know," Doneen said in an email.

Commissioner Bill Stearns asked how these irrigation wells impact surrounding wells. Roth responded that when requested, well owners have to install a monitoring well nearby to show how water levels are affected. If the irrigation well has an adverse effect on surrounding residents, and that effect has to be documented, the irrigation well owner would have to resolve that situation, possibly by replacing the well or installing a deeper well for those affected. He added that there are limits to the amount of water that farmers can put on their fields each year and the typical farmer does not come close to those limits.

"If there is a legitimate concern in Wadena County, fine, use the process, but if you are just weaponizing against one particular grower in Wadena County, then no, we don't want you involved in our Wadena County stuff," Brian said.

Brian testified in front of the Water Quality Board with his concerns about the weaponizing of the petition process. He said District 9A Rep. John Poston suggested he gain support from the county to move this change forward. Roth said in addition to Wadena County, he planned to visit Otter Tail, Todd and Cass counties and the Central Minnesota Irrigation Corporation with his concerns.