The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources issued a decision Aug. 29 ordering the preparation of an environmental assessment worksheet (EAW) for the Pineland Sands Nolte Water Appropriation Project.

The decision came in response to citizen petitions for an EAW on a project to expand irrigated agriculture in parts of Hubbard, Cass, Becker and Wadena counties, much of it owned by R.D. Offutt Co. and Tim Nolte.

According to the DNR’s 15-page record of decision, the case involved water appropriation requests, including three applications submitted by Nolte for a total of 98.8 million gallons per year to irrigate 303 acres, four by RDO for a total increase of 23.3 million gallons per year, and six other requests for a total of 122 million gallons per year over an additional 495 acres.

In its conclusions regarding the Nolte and RDO water requests, the DNR found that the RDO project – increasing the water appropriation for already established fields – does not have the potential for significant environmental effects; however, the Nolte project, for new irrigated agriculture, may have that potential.

The DNR’s order therefore states that an EAW will not be required for the RDO project, but an EAW will be prepared for the proposed Nolte project.

“Momentum builds for addressing chemical contamination of drinking water,” Mike Tauber with the Northern Water Alliance commented after the decision.

In a cover letter to Nolte attached to the decision, DNR Assistant Commissioner Jess Richards wrote, “We have determined that your agricultural irrigation project may have the potential to contribute to potentially significant cumulative effects.”

Richards instructed Nolte that the order prohibits final government approval and construction of the project, manipulation of the environment toward developing the irrigated fields, vegetation removal and site preparation activities like grading or trenching during the EAW submission process.

However, the order does not prevent non-irrigated farming or land management activities, such as control of invasive species or burning of previously cleared woody debris.

According to the DNR’s findings of fact, the citizen petition requesting the EAW claimed that environmental effects of the Nolte/RDO project could:

  • Harm the local wildlife and ecosystem through deforestation;

  • Contribute to the degradation of the Pineland Sands Aquifer;

  • Contribute to global warming and lower oxygen levels in the Straight River drainage;

  • Cause nitrate contamination of groundwater;

  • Degrade area trout streams and wetland habitat;

  • Cause health problems through the use of synthetic chemicals, including fungicides;

  • Decrease water availability.

The procedural background included in the decision shows that previous permit applications, citizen petitions, DNR orders and appeals were either vacated or dismissed as moot going back to 2015, often as a result of RDO withdrawing or amending its application.

The case history also noted that Nolte acquired property in Wadena County from RDO on the condition that he regularly rent the property to RDO for potato farming and that he provide RDO with water appropriation permits from the DNR.

“R.D. Offutt Farms has no involvement in the land, irrigation permit, petition for, or Aug. 29 Department of Natural Resources’ decision to require an Environmental Assessment Worksheet,” said Anne Struthers, director of communications with R.D. Offutt Farms/Threemile Canyon Farms. “The petitioners inaccurately included RDO in their EAW petition to the DNR. A neighboring farmer, Tim Nolte, of Nolte Livestock, purchased the land several months ago. Nolte is the sole landowner who filed the irrigation permit request with the Department of Agriculture.”

The full text of the record of decision, including a history of the project, citizen petitions to order an EAW, appeals, amendments, findings of fact, conclusions and the order itself are below.