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New farm bill offers water detention option

OLIVIA — This year’s record rains washed away tons of topsoil and left taxpayers and landowners holding the bills for millions of dollars in damage to roadways, ditches and other infrastructure.

And like a broken record, everyone sang a familiar refrain afterward about the need to be able to hold water and avoid this kind of damage.

Soon, there will be a better opportunity to do so in flood-prone agricultural areas like the Minnesota River Valley, according to U.S. Rep. Collin Peterson, D-Minn.

Congressman Peterson told the Renville County Board of Commissioners on Tuesday that the new farm bill includes $1.4 billion for regional conservation partnerships that address the types of flooding issues experienced in the Red River and Minnesota River Valleys.

It will allow private and public partnerships to build water detention systems that can hold and slow water during wet periods, but also allow much of the land to be farmed. Similar to the North Ottawa Project in the Red River basin, it would buy easements on low-lying lands where detaining water would provide the most benefit.

The easements are equal to the value of the land, but the owner of the easement could continue to farm the land. The owner takes the risk when planting a crop that it could be flooded and the water purposely detained in wet years. The crop cannot be insured on those lands, so the risk belongs entirely to the easement owner.

Peterson said there was a lot of opposition to the North Ottawa Project, but attitudes have changed now that it is implemented. Many of the biggest opponents are its proponents today, he said.

This approach can work in areas where the owners of flood-prone farmland are unwilling to have their acreage converted to permanent water-holding areas in traditional conservation programs, Peterson said.

“It’s a much more farmer-friendly, producer-friendly system than we’ve had in the past,’’ said Peterson.

He’s promoted its opportunities in the Red River Valley, and there are already 10 applications for projects within the basin. Peterson said he sees the program as being equally applicable to the Minnesota River Valley, and hopes to get word out about it here as well.

The program will be accepting applications this fall as the new farm bill is implemented.

He told the commissioners that much of his work in Washington currently is focused on the work to implement the farm bill, and that is a far bigger challenge than most people would realize. “Passing the farm bill is only 25 percent of it,’’ said Peterson. “Implementing it is the important part, frankly.’’

He told the commissioners that yes, Congress is “fairly dysfunctional, as you probably hear on news accounts.’’ But he said the agricultural committee — of which he is a member — has gotten its work done and is moving forward.

Tom Cherveny

Tom Cherveny is a regional and outdoor reporter with the West Central Tribune in Willmar, MN.

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