The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources announced Thursday, June 18, that the Nolte Family Irrigation Project east of Sebeka does not require preparation of an environmental impact statement (EIS). The justification for this determination is contained in a Record of Decision that followed the DNR’s completion of an environmental assessment worksheet (EAW).
While that announcement would seem like great news for the Nolte family, the main proposer of the project, Tim Nolte, said he's a wreck as he awaits approval of permitting for the project.
"I'm worried more now than ever," Nolte said Thursday. "Until they issue the permits, somebody, anybody can appeal."
An appeal of the project could mean Nolte is out another growing season since purchasing the ground in 2017.
Nolte proposes to convert 303 acres of formerly privately owned and managed timberland to irrigated agriculture for livestock grazing and crop production. The majority of the land is currently used for non-irrigated crop production and livestock grazing. The project would involve removing about six acres of remaining standing timber and associated stumps, cultivating the land and operating three groundwater-supplied center pivot irrigation systems.
In April 2019, the DNR ordered the preparation of an EAW in response to a public petition. As provided under the Minnesota Environmental Protection Act (MEPA), the DNR prepared the EAW to assess whether the project presented the potential for significant environmental effects. The analysis considered:
the type, extent and reversibility of environmental effects
the potential for cumulative environmental effects
whether any environmental effects were subject to ongoing regulatory authority
the extent to which environmental effects can be anticipated and controlled as a result of other available environmental studies.
The DNR has determined that all potential environmental effects from the proposed project are minimal in nature or can be managed through ongoing regulatory authority. Given this determination, the DNR is not ordering preparation of an EIS.
“We have found that the Nolte project does not have the potential for significant environmental effects and therefore does not warrant the preparation of an EIS,” DNR Assistant Commissioner Jess Richards said.
The announcement by the DNR was not surprising to Northern Water Alliance member Mike Tauber of Backus, who was instrumental in creating the citizen's petition against the irrigation project.
"Of course DNR will state this was only about one inconsequential 300-acre development but many citizens know better by now. After 30-plus years of watching the pines disappear 300 acres at a time we all know this isn't done by accident. This is the way corporations avoid scrutiny. And this is the way that state agencies protect their budgets from legislators who will protect their campaign donors. This is quite a familiar theme for those paying attention to the issues of Line 3, mining, CAFOs and prisons," according to the Northern Water Alliance statement.
The Pineland Sands area characterized by sandy soils, has experienced significant conversion of forested areas to other uses and an increase in agricultural irrigation, resulting in concerns about the potential for cumulative impacts to the environment. The EAW indicates that the proposed Nolte project would have a smaller zone of effect and would not influence the larger Pineland Sands area.
“The DNR remains concerned about environmental effects, specifically groundwater impacts, associated with the loss of forest lands and increased irrigation in the Pineland Sands area. We are evaluating options for addressing these concerns going forward,” Richards said.
The DNR decision followed a thorough environmental review process, including interagency coordination with the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, the Minnesota Department of Agriculture and the Minnesota Department of Health. The decision was informed by more than 150 individual public comments and the results of an aquifer test.
An aquifer test was performed this spring, pumping water at 800 gallons per minute for seven days at the Nolte farm. Recommendations from the test are that additional observation wells be installed that measure water levels every minute; a stream gauge be installed on the Redeye River; flow meters be used to track the amount of water being pumped; an operational plan be in place to mitigate high-risk well interference including not running all three pumps at the same time. The recommendations also listed the wells that need pump intakes lowered to address potential draw-down issues.
The executive summary of the test states that the wells are capable of providing the requested rate and volume listed in the permit applications (98.8 million gallons per year) but that several nearby domestic wells are at high-risk for well interference when one or all three pumps are used.
One area of note was the pumping had a direct effect on the Redeye River level, raising it 2 feet after three days of pumping. With an increased river level, there were increased water levels to three nearby wells.
The 73-page water aquifer test document indicates the effect pumping would have on neighboring wells. While a few wells were likely to be affected using one pump, pumping from all three would put nine wells at high risk of well interference. In all cases, the Nolte family's well is one at risk. The document indicates that increasing the depth of the at-risk well intakes could resolve the predicted well water draw down if pumps are capable of pumping from a deeper depth.
During the 30-day comment period, the DNR received over 300 letters requesting an extension of the comment period and 98 letters commenting on the project from individuals and agencies.
Of those commenting, 58 were in favor of the project, stating that because of the proposed mitigation for the project (e.g., nitrogen management plan), there is not a potential for significant environmental effects, according to the record of decision.
Nine comments provided nonsubstantive comments, including personal opinion regarding the cost of environmental review, Minnesota Rules, the Citizen’s Petition process, and assertions that DNR’s permitting and regulatory authority were either too strict or not strict enough. A few individuals provided resources but did not include a comment letter specifying how DNR was to consider the information.
Other comments expressed concerns over increased greenhouse gases and adverse effects on pollinators and protected animal species. The DNR’s response was that it would have little effect on those subjects.
Numerous comments spoke to the concern that this project should be looked at alongside a broader review of the entire Pineland Sands area. The DNR’s response indicated that they have been attempting to gain legislative funding since 2016 for a Pineland Sands Area Special Study, but no such funding has been approved.
“Although there have been efforts to secure the needed funding for this broader study, no funding has been secured,” the record of decision states. “The DNR continues to recognize the need for this broader study but environmental review of any single project does not provide an adequate mechanism to reach broader region-wide concerns.”
Much of the concern has revolved around increased nitrate leaching into the sandy soils of this region. A map of the Pineland Sands area indicates areas of wells and nitrate contaminations. The Northern Water Alliance has repeatedly pointed the attention of these irrigation projects towards potato growers like R.D. Offutt.
"The DNR seems bent on drawing attention away from the master-serf relationship that so many farmers have with industrial agribusinesses like RD Offutt Company (RDO)," according to the Northern Water Alliance statement. "This relationship allows the corporate costs to be externalized and for the corporate footprint to look much smaller than it really is. This Environmental Review was intentionally small-scoped by DNR to avoid the inclusion of related activities in the area which necessarily would've drawn potato juggernaut RDO into the spotlight. It is important to note that RDO was the original purchaser of the former Potlatch parcels that are the subject of this Environmental Review. RDO was also installer of the three irrigation wells on these parcels. RDO then got the neighboring farmer to purchase these parcels, apply for the water appropriation permits, and sign a contract to allow RDO to operate their standard chemical intensive irrigated potato growing operation there."
In response to comments concerned about the Nolte’s working in partnership with Offutt to grow potatoes, the DNR said no such representation of a working relationship is being made.
“The Nolte’s have represented that they have no agreement to grow potatoes for RDO and that they have no agreement to lease the land to RDO to grow potatoes on this land,” the record of decision states. “If such an agreement existed the proposed project would have to be analyzed as a phased or connected action. As it stands, without such a connection to RDO or other proposed projects, the DNR has no legal basis to view the project as a phased or connected action.”
If permitted, the proposed Nolte project would be required to implement mitigation measures to manage nitrogen fertilizer and pesticide use, and to ensure the pumping would not impact nearby wells and surface waters. The project would be regulated through multiple ongoing authorities. Mitigation measures implemented through these authorities would minimize the project’s potential to transfer nitrates and other constituents to the environment and ensure that any potential cumulative impacts would be minimal, according to a DNR news release.
Under Minnesota Environmental Quality Board rules, the DNR’s decision ends the state environmental review process for the project. The project can now proceed to decisions on required permits and other approvals.
Nolte indicated that had an EIS been needed, he likely would have had to forfeit the plans for the property. Until permits are approved, he said he'll keep sweating.
Additional information, including decision details about the proposed project and the DNR’s review process are available on the project page.