A three-judge panel from the Minnesota Court of Appeals heard oral arguments Feb. 25 about the Tim Nolte Family Irrigation Project, east of Sebeka.

A coalition that includes Honor the Earth, Minnesota Well Owners Organization, Northern Water Alliance, Toxic Taters, Environmental Working Group, Pollinator Stewardship Council and others is challenging the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources’ (DNR) decision that the project does not require preparation of an environmental impact statement (EIS). They are also asking that irrigation permits be rescinded.

Minneapolis attorney Jamie Konopacky represented the coalition, called the “relators.” Minnesota Assistant Attorney General Peter Farrell spoke for the DNR, the “respondent.”


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From pine to cropland

Nolte proposes to convert 303 acres of formerly privately owned and managed timberland to irrigated agriculture for livestock grazing and crop production.

The acreage was originally cleared by the Potlatch Lumber Co., which has pulled its timber operations out of the region and sold most of its land. The land was then sold to Offutt Farms (RDO), the largest potato grower in the nation and a major employer in the region with about 1,600 employees. Nolte acquired the land from RDO.

The majority of the land is currently used for non-irrigated crop production and livestock grazing. Nolte’s 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 environmental assessment worksheet (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 DNR determined that all potential environmental effects from the proposed project are minimal or can be managed through regulation.

In June 2020, the DNR decided the project does not require preparation of an EIS.

Concerns about water quality

Konopacky argued Nolte’s irrigation project is in a “highly vulnerable area, the Pineland Sands.”

She said there are three primary reasons to reverse the DNR’s decision.

“First, is pumping 100 million gallons per year from leaky, connected aquifers poses immediate and significant threats of harm to surrounding residential wells, the Red Eye River and hundreds of acres of wetland. Second, poorly evaluated chemical application poses a potentially significant cancer risk as well as lethal harm to pollinators and aquatic invertebrates. Third, approval of this project without evaluation as a phased action threatens significant environmental effects covering at least 7,000 acres of the Pineland Sands,” Konopacky said.

The relators believe additional aquifer testing is needed as part of an EIS.

The relators further argue that the link between RDO and Nolte has not been severed. Konopacky said there is evidence they are working together to apply for water permits and Nolte intends to plant potatoes.

Many of the relators’ concerns revolve around increased nitrate leaching into the sandy soils of this region.

Rebuttal

Farrell argued the court should affirm the DNR’s decision denying a need for an EIS.

Farrell said that RDO abandoned a 7,000-acre expansion project years ago. Even if it hadn’t, he said this project doesn’t meet the requirements for “phased action.”

He said the DNR shares the relators’ broader concern about the effects of irrigated agriculture in this region of central Minnesota. The record shows, Farrell continued, that the DNR took “a hard look” at potential environmental issues with the Nolte project.

Under the three water permits granted to Nolte, Farrell said he’s allowed to appropriate up to 100 million gallons per year. He added that Nolte has indicated in the EAW that potatoes are just one part of a five-year crop rotation. There are no restrictions on what Nolte may farm, Farrell said.

Given the small size of the project and mitigation efforts, Farrell said the DNR determined pesticides would have a negligible effect on wildlife and pollinators.

The judges’ panel will issue a decision in 90 days.