Although the regular session for the Minnesota legislature concluded on May 23, we are still waiting to see if legislative leaders can come to agreement on a special session to address unfinished issues from the regular session: investments for public works projects and transportation. However, a few days after the end of regular session, Governor Mark Dayton signed the supplemental budget bill.

Included in the supplemental budget bill is funding for a Working Lands Watershed Restoration program plan and feasibility study. The legislature appropriated $594,000 to for the program plan and feasibility study to determine how a program could be designed and implemented to incent the establishment and maintenance of perennial crops for use in biomass processing facilities.

The Working Lands Watershed Restoration program is a continuation of the work accomplished last year by the Bioeconomy Coalition and our partners to put in place a new financing program to support commercial deployment of facilities producing advanced biofuels, renewable chemicals, and biomass thermal energy.

The Board of Water and Soil Resources (BWSR) will coordinate the development of the Working Lands Watershed Restoration plan and study, along with stakeholders and the commissioners of natural resources, agriculture, and the Pollution Control Agency. The study and stakeholder work will  determine how to efficiently implement a pilot program to match perennial and cover cropping biomass establishment and harvest for use in processing facilities producing advanced biofuels, biobased chemicals, or thermal and electrical energy.

BWSR is directed to examine the following areas as part of the study and program plan process:

  • Select pilot watersheds that will result in the greatest water quality improvements.
  • Create an assessment of the quantity of agricultural land that is expected to be eligible for the program in each watershed.
  • Perform assessment of the landowner interest in participating in the program.
  • Assess the contract terms and any recommendations for changes to the terms, including consideration of variable payment rates for lands of different priority.
  • Assess the opportunity to leverage federal funds through the program and recommend how to maximize the use of federal funds for assistance to establish perennial crops.
  • Assess how other state programs could complement the program.
  • Estimate the water quality improvements expected to result from implementation in pilot watersheds.
  • Assess how to best integrate program implementation with existing conservation requirements and develop recommendations on harvest practices and timing to benefit wildlife production.
  • Assess the potential viability and water quality benefit of cover crops used in biomass processing facilities.
  • Create a timeline for implementation coordinated with proposed biomass processing facilities.
  • Create a projection of funding sources needed to complete implementation.

The feasibility study and the program plan must be submitted by the board by February 1, 2018 to legislative committees with jurisdiction over environment and agriculture and to the Clean Water Council.

The program intent is to help agricultural producers keep productive use of land while helping supply biomass feedstocks to produce materials or energy with a lower carbon footprint. Program implementation could also provide a new model for addressing water quality challenges in certain parts of Minnesota. This program would be a voluntary, market-based approach that doesn’t rely on a conservation set-aside or regulatory model.

With support of the Bioeconomy Coalition and bringing together industry, agriculture and environmental groups, we witnessed the power that unity provides for economic growth opportunities while improving water quality and aiding the production of thermal energy, renewable chemicals, and advanced biofuels.

The Star Tribune even recognized this partnership and stated that accomplishing the goal of ensuring better water quality requires the unity of environmental advocates, agricultural interests, and industry. They also did not leave behind the idea that new biomass processing technologies could create an “economic boon” in Minnesota.

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