Pilot project could improve water quality in North Dakota

Published: Aug. 19, 2022 at 2:21 PM CDT
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BISMARCK, N.D. (KFYR) - North Dakota and the federal government have been paying farmers and ranchers for more than thirty years to commit to practices that protect water quality. But now, after questioning the efficiency of the program, the Department of Environmental Quality and a private organization in Fargo are partnering to find more effective methods of conservation that might cost less. Joel Crane has more.

“Is there a better way?” asked Greg Sandness, nonpoint source pollution management program coordinator for the Department of Environmental Quality.

That’s the question water conservationists are asking. For three decades, the government has paid millions each year to farmers and ranchers to implement certain conservation practices. But Chuck Fritz with the International Water Institute is wondering how that could be improved.

“Does it really matter what a farmer does to reduce the sediment or the phosphorus that’s leaving his field? Does it matter what practice he uses or how it’s built or what it looks like?” said Fritz.

So, rather than paying farmers to implement certain practices as they have for decades, Chuck and Greg are piloting a program in which landowners will get paid for demonstrating results, regardless of how they achieve them.

“What we would be paying on would be an actual reduction in tons of sediment or pounds of nitrogen, pounds of phosphorus,” said Sandness.

Chuck said this is an effort to cut back on what he calls unnecessary bureaucratic red tape and requirements.

“Farmers are just as concerned about the environment as anybody else out there. I’ve heard time and time again, ‘Just tell me what I need to do and how much it’s going to reduce the soil that’s leaving my field or the phosphorus that I’m losing, and I’ll do it. I don’t need a program to do it,’” said Fritz.

For now, this project is in a planning stage: a preliminary framework will be presented to DEQ in December 2023, which will determine if the project moves forward.

The long-term goal of the project is a to see measurable improvement in the water quality of streams near fields where these practices are implemented. The shorter-term goal is to provide more economical solutions for producers.