BISMARCK (AP) - Water resource advocates have lost a round in the state Legislature but they are not giving up the push for more stringent rules on the use of irrigation systems to apply farm chemicals.
The Agriculture Department plans more public meetings this summer on the issue, called chemigation.
"Even without a legislative mandate, we're going to take a critical look at whether our rules, the way they are written now, adequately protect our (water) resources," said Jim Gray, the Agriculture Department's lead farm chemical regulator.
"It's not dead," said Randy Loeslie, a water district manager in northeastern North Dakota. "This is an issue that's not going to go away."
A bill defeated in the Senate on a 22-24 vote would have set up a permit system for chemigation through the Agriculture Department. Gray said the important aspect of such a system would not be the money it would bring in, but the fact that it would set up a registry to let regulators know where chemigation outfits are located.
Right now, he said, "there is no good data source for us to go to, to find out exactly where chemigating is taking place."
It is not a new issue. Loeslie brought it to the attention of two state senators back in 2007, when irrigators in the region put chemigation tanks within a couple hundred feet of some of the Grand Forks Traill Water District's water wells.
Farmers say applying fertilizer and pesticides through irrigation systems can be easier and cheaper than other methods. Opponents say the practice can contaminate groundwater if the chemical tanks leak or spill.
"We're not against chemigation; we just want it to be done carefully," Loeslie said.
It is difficult to say how widespread chemigation is in North Dakota. The state Water Commission has approved more than 2,200 irrigation permits but does not track how many involve chemigation, said Bob Shaver, the agency's water appropriations director.
The Agriculture Department inspects chemigation outfits 85 in the past two years but only when field staff come across them while out doing other inspections, Gray said.
A North Dakota farmer who wants to set up a chemigation system must follow design rules and install a device that prevents the backflow of chemicals into the water well supplying the irrigation system.
The bill defeated in the Senate would have required the agriculture commissioner to study new rules and report back to the Legislative Council the Legislature's research arm by July 2010. It made reference to containment systems around chemigation tanks but did not require them. Gray said many other states, including Minnesota, have the requirement.
The Agriculture Department will hold public meetings this summer to gather comments from all sides in the debate and then decide how to proceed, Gray said. Similar meetings were held two years ago, leading to the effort to pass legislation this year.
The Agriculture Department does not need the blessing of state lawmakers for new rules. "But we are very hesitant to put those sorts of burdens on all chemigators unless we know that there is a legitimate concern," Gray said.
Herb Grenz of Linton, who owns land where chemigation has been used on potato crops, said a chemigator would not want to contaminate a water well. "You would contaminate your investment, like setting fire to your house," he said.