Hoping to protect Minnesota's groundwater supplies amid an irrigation boom, state officials this season will have new power to levy heavy fines on farmers pumping water illegally.
Last year, the Legislature authorized the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources to fine violators as much as $20,000 without having to go to court. The agency begins enforcement in June.
The effort is part of the state's goal to ramp up management of Minnesota's ground water, and irrigation is a primary focus. A farmer needs a permit to pump more than 10,000 gallons a day or 1 million gallons a year. Many irrigators trigger the requirement within an hour of operation.
So many farmers are irrigating now that the DNR fears that in some parts of the state irrigation demand is more than what aquifers can supply.
Farmers with permits are required to report how much they pump each year. The DNR can restrict irrigation if there's too much water being taken. But unpermitted irrigators could upset the balance since their take is unknown.
Before last year's law change, the DNR had to take a violation to court as a criminal matter. With this new law, the agency can issue civil penalties on its own.
State officials say the stiff fines will motivate illegal irrigators to end the practice. It's not clear how many will be fined under the new system.
"These people were using a public resource to make money, and the advantage to them was so great that they just paid the fine," said Julie Ekman, the DNR's water resources and conservation manager. The cost, she added, "wasn't enough to induce them to come into compliance."
The DNR believes that once word gets around, most farmers will voluntarily register their unpermitted wells. There's no doubt that for many farmers, irrigation is crucial.
With an irrigation rig, a farmer can make it rain whenever crops need it. Hundreds of Minnesota farmers are finding the resulting boost in harvests and revenue more than justifies the cost.
"I don't think I'd be farming without the benefit of irrigation," said Alan Peterson, president of the Irrigators Association of Minnesota, which supports the tougher penalties for illegal pumping. Irrigation has proved most helpful on the state's sandy soils in central Minnesota, he added.
Even though an irrigation rig's cost can reach into six figures, the financial rewards have led to a sharp increase in the practice.
Last year, the number of irrigation permits issued in the state increased by about 40 percent over the previous year. Peterson says in drought years when most fields struggle to produce anything, irrigated land can still push up bumper crops. The difference can be more than $100,000 in revenue in a single season.
An irrigator not only can pay for itself quickly, it can fatten a farmer's bottom line for years. But Peterson acknowledges some farmers are pumping groundwater for irrigation illegally.
Just how many farmers do that is unknown.
An MPR News investigation last year found that about a third of the roughly 1,200 irrigation wells drilled between 2008 and 2012 either lacked a permit, or went a substantial period of time, sometimes years, without one. The DNR has estimated the number at between 2 and 10 percent of the state's irrigators. A Freshwater Society report put the number at more than 25 percent.
Whatever the number, the new, higher penalties should bring the agency closer to its goal of making sure that every irrigator has a permit, Ekman said.
The June enforcement start is later than originally planned. The DNR said it needed time to develop a graduated fine structure that took into account the severity of violations and could survive a court challenge.
It would be worse to set up an unfair system that a court overturns later, said Steve Woods, executive director of the nonprofit Freshwater Society who worked for the Minnesota Board of Water and Soil Resources.
"Nobody wants these water rustlers to get away with poaching Minnesota's water," he said.