What Lawmakers (& We) Missed on March 23

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I spent a few hours last week with Paul Wotzka, the former Minnesota Pollution Control Agency hydrologist who has recently filed a federal whistleblower lawsuit against the agency. As we sat in his rural southeast Minnesota home near where the Whitewater River empties into the Mississippi, he gave me an informal version of the presentation he would have given to a state House committee on March 23—if his supervisors would have allowed him. Well, here is the presentation that committee missed out on. As you can see, the environmental trend lines Wotzka’s research lays out are troubling, but this Powerpoint isn’t exactly a threat to national security. So why the big fuss? It’s like this: in a climate where little questioning of the corn-bean-feedlot machine is tolerated, some may see these charts, graphs and bullet points as tantamount to treason. That’s because Wotzka’s research shows that planting more and more corn and soybeans in watersheds like the Whitewater is creating significant threats to the ecosystem. The trouble is, a lot of powerful interests are betting on the “more and more corn and beans” horse and don’t want any stumbling blocks tossed onto the track. The future of Paul Wotzka’s career may be in the hands of the courts, but we still have a chance to thank the hydrologist for serving the public’s interest, even when his research perturbs the powerful. An Aug. 11 fundraiser for Wotzka is an opportunity for people to support the kind of solid, publicly-funded science that helps you and me (and our lawmakers) make informed decisions.This lawsuit is about much more than whether a civil servant was wrongfully fired. This is about the public’s right to know and the First Amendment, as well as what influence agribusiness is having on the creation and execution of public policy. Wotzka is a big believer that as a state employee he owed the taxpaying public a return on its investment, and his presentation, which summarizes years of cutting-edge water quality research, shows it.

As this lawsuit progresses, a lot of issues will arise that while important, threaten to overshadow the heart of the matter: Wotzka’s research spotlights some very troubling trends. The bottom line is that more atrazine and other agricultural chemicals are making their way into the Whitewater River. The upward spike has been particulrly sharp since 2000, according to Wotzka’s monitoring. Let’s keep in mind that while Wotzka’s research took place on the Whitewater, similar trends are showing up in watersheds across Minnesota’s farm country.

Atrazine, a popular corn herbicide, has been highlighted recently, mostly because of research showing that it may have connections to endocrine disruption. More corn planted means more herbicides like atrazine are applied. That’s why there were attempts this past legislative session to keep closer tabs on atrazine and other chemicals.

But Wotzka’s presentation highlights another important trend (a trend, again, that’s being seen elsewhere in the state) in the Whitewater: levels of nitrogen in the river have also been going up since 2000. Nitrogen is a key crop nutrient and has been pegged as a major culprit in the development of the ever-widening Dead Zone in the Gulf of Mexico. During the same years that pesticide and nitrogen levels went up, so did the amount of acreage in the watershed planted to corn and soybeans.

And going in the opposite direction is the amount of acres planted to perennial systems like pasture grass and hay. This is an important trend: University of Minnesota research in Lamberton and Waseca shows that a field planted to corn loses on average 49 pounds of nitrogen per acre annually. A field in alfalfa loses 1.6 pounds per acre each year.

Two different agricultural inputs, a common reason for their increased presence in the Whitewater: more row crops and less year-round plant cover such as grass and hay. It seems the timing of this shift to more annual row crops that cover the land only a few months out of the year couldn’t be worse from a meteorological point of view. Wotzka’s presentation points out that as climate change shifts the heaviest rainfall to the spring months when croplands are relatively bare of cover, water quality has suffered.

It doesn’t have to be this way, as research in the Wells Creek watershed right in the Whitewater’s backyard shows. Policies that encourage and support a more diverse agriculture could make a huge difference in Minnesota’s water quality. That doesn’t meen replacing all our corn and soybeans with grass. It just means making it so that farmers aren’t punished for diversifying out of wall-to-wall row crops, and seeking options that aren’t tied into the raw commodity export/ethanol machine.

Let’s not forget that at the center of this whistleblower lawsuit is solid science that we as taxpayers have paid for and that we ignore at our own risk. Lawmakers and others who make decisions affecting our landscape need such science to make good policy. But they can’t act on what they don’t know. Denying Paul Wotzka the opportunity to testify on March 23 hurt more than one man’s career—it slowed the enactment of good, long-overdue public policy. Let’s hope it was only a temporary delay.

7 Responses to “What Lawmakers (& We) Missed on March 23”

  1. Dave Dempsey

    Thank you for making this information widely available to the taxpayers who funded it, and thanks to Mr. Wotzka for his willingness to speak forthrightly.

  2. Jeff

    Is this fired employee really a “whistleblower” or just angry?

    I agree that MN Dept of AG is, in many respects, a whipping boy for Ag industry. There is also a lot of data and information on the damaging effects of atrazine (and its degridates) in aquatic systems and its ridiculously high concentrations in MN ground and surface waters. These are not hidden or unknown issues just ones policy makers have repeatedly ducked responsibility for. What’s new when it comes to the environment?

    Just listen to this October 2005 MN NPR story with Paul Wotzka, (and I assume with MDAs approval) as the focus describing the problems of atrazine in the Whitewater River.
    (http://news.minnesota.publicradio.org/features/2005/10/10_olsond_impaire…). In this story he is explaining the high concentrations of atrazine quantified in the SW and other experts explaining the detrimental effects of those high concentrations. No one else is speaking for the MDA so I guess if there was some sort of misrepresentation of facts he would have been knowledgeable of and involved with it. He was employed by MDA for 16-yrs which makes you wonder why after being fired he now has a concern for some sort of cover-up?

    It sounds like the Dept of Employee Relations was investigating this guy 4 or 5 months before he was asked to talk to this subcommittee. Apparently his termination letter from the state cited the “destruction of data” and the “improper diversion of state mail”. I dont know what all that means but I would guess that the state has bullet proof evidence to make such strong statements which resulted in his firing.

    I guess time will tell with his story. Unfortunately I fear that the more important issue of unregulated and harmful pesticides in our state waters will be pushed off to the side for some trial lawyer carnival theatrics.

  3. Jon

    I was given the impression recently that they are saying the data was “destroyed” when he took it with him from the Department of Ag to the MPCA without going through the proper chain of custody paperwork. If true (and I don’t know if that is the basis of the accusation or not), that hardly seems like a good reason to fire someone, particularly when the data has been used in previous instances.

    I agree with Jeff that it is long overdue for Minnesota to beter regulate these toxins and get them out of our lakes and rivers.

  4. Jeff G.

    what happened to this lawsuit and all the $ raised in these fundraisers? according to paper and NPR Paul dropped his lawsuit last fall. now were into April yet no lawsuit. were we scammed?

  5. Brian DeVore

    Actually, Wotzka and his attorneys are currently digging through thousands of pages of government documents and seeking more documentation through the Government Data Practices Act. Once they have gone through all these documents, Wotzka plans on re-filing the lawsuit.

    As you may recall, last fall both sides to the lawsuit asked that the case be dismissed without prejudice. This means that Wotzka can re-file the lawsuit at any time, which he says he will. Wotzka says one of the reasons he agreed to dismiss the case temporarily in federal court is that the State of Minnesota claims that it was the Department of Employee Relations (DOER) that fired him, and not the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA). If that’s true, then he would need to sue DOER and not MPCA. Wotzka and his attorneys want to investigate the respective roles of the various government agencies in the firing decision before re-filing the lawsuit.

    The government has also indicated that there was a secret investigation against Wotzka before the firing. By combing through those thousands of pages of documents, they hope to learn as much about that investigation as possible. Jeff, in the past you have called for the results of the investigation to be posted on the Internet. Getting such information out to the public is one of the goals of Wotzka’s lawsuit.

    Finally, as has been reported previously, the government has invoked a legal technicality which would require Wotzka to re-file his lawsuit in state court instead of in federal court. All of this takes an immense amount of time and resources, and Wotzka has vowed to continue the fight, no matter how long it takes.


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