Unpermitted irrigation threatens Minn. groundwater

Farm Forum

BROOTEN, Minn. (AP) — As irrigation booms in Minnesota, hundreds of farmers appear to be pumping groundwater for their crops without the required state permits, Minnesota Public Radio reported on April 7.

Of the roughly 1,200 crop irrigation wells drilled from 2008 to 2012, more than 200 likely are operating without a permit, MPR’s investigation of public well records found. Nearly 200 others operated without a permit until the past year or so. Irrigating without a permit is a misdemeanor, which means fines are limited.

The lack of permits hampers the state’s ability to manage its groundwater resources, which are increasingly seen as valuable and vulnerable. Tens of millions of gallons of water are likely being pumped without the state’s knowledge, MPR found, and some irrigators are boosting their yields and profits while avoiding oversight and without paying fees.

The Department of Natural Resources acknowledged that some water users have been getting away without permits but said it has gotten more aggressive recently, and has asked the Legislature for the authority to impose tougher financial penalties. Steve Colvin, deputy director of the DNR’s ecological and water resources division, said the agency has done the best it could over the years with the resources it had.

The DNR’s own figures show that the “no-permit” rate is between 2 and 20 percent of irrigation wells, depending on the location. But Colvin acknowledged MPR’s list probably contains many irrigation wells that should have permits, but don’t.

“Some of those are likely folks who have not applied and ought to,” Colvin said.

Farmers whose land has sandy soil can make more money with irrigation than those who rely on rain. In drought years, that can mean yields of 200 bushels of corn per acre or more compared with less than 50 bushels on unirrigated acres. The revenue difference can be over $100,000 in a single season when crop prices are high, so an irrigation system not only pays for itself quickly, but can also boost a farmer’s bottom line for years.

Minnesota requires farmers to file annual pumping reports and pay for the water used — $140 for up to 50 million gallons a year and additional fees for more.

If a landowner is found to be irrigating without a permit, DNR policy is to first work with him or her to try to gain compliance.

DNR conservation officer Daniel Baumbarger said he filed eight citations last summer against one Pope County farmer who didn’t have a permit for the wells supplying his irrigation units and didn’t stop after the DNR sent him letters saying he was operating illegally.

With court costs, the farmer paid more than $3,000 in penalties, and after the growing season was over, the farmer agreed to apply for permits.