An irrigation system stands in a field outside of Menahga, Minnesota, on September 8, 2020. Credit: Kirsti Marohn | MPR News (file photo)

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This story comes to you from MPR News through a partnership with Sahan Journal.

A research study is taking a closer look at how intensive farming and irrigation in the Pineland Sands region of north-central Minnesota is affecting natural resources in tribal treaty territories.

The Pineland Sands region covers parts of Becker, Cass, Hubbard, and Wadena counties. In the past few decades, the region has seen widespread land use changes, including the clear cutting of forests for potato farms.

The region’s sandy soils cause water to drain quickly, so growing potatoes or other crops requires a lot of irrigation. That’s raised concerns about the impact of over-pumping on the groundwater supply, as well as nitrate contamination from fertilizer.

“There’s concerns about the effect of heavy water use as well as the chemistry that is affected by agricultural operations, and the changing of the landscape from a forest and grassland to do row crops,” said John Nieber, a University of Minnesota professor who is helping lead the study.

Long term impacts

The Pineland Sands also overlaps with 1855 treaty lands, where Ojibwe or Anishinaabe tribes retain hunting, fishing and gathering rights. The region is important culturally and economically, and includes the headwaters of the Mississippi River and numerous lakes and streams.

The University of Minnesota is partnering with the Anishinaabe Agricultural Institute and the White Earth Nation on the study. 

Researchers are collecting data on stream flows and chemicals in the groundwater and rivers. Then, they’ll use models to analyze impacts of farming practices on resources important to Anishinaabe tribes, including wild rice production and freshwater mussel populations.

The Anishinaabe Agricultural Institute is funding the research through August, Nieber said. The project also has been recommended by the Legislative-Citizen Commission on Minnesota Resources for $1.7 million to continue the research for three more years. 

The findings could be used to help guide policy changes to protect natural resources in the region, Nieber said.

Kirsti Marohn

Kirsti Marohn is a reporter in MPR News' Collegeville, Minn., bureau.