The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources and farming corporation R.D. Offutt have reached an agreement that cuts back on the company's aims to irrigate its cropland expansion in the north-central part of the state.

In a joint press conference call Thursday, DNR Assistant Commissioner Barb Naramore and R.D. Offutt CEO Keith McGovern outlined how the company voluntarily withdrew all but five of its applications for new irrigation wells in the Pineland Sands area spread across Becker, Cass, Hubbard, and Wadena counties.

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The DNR withdrew the threat of an Environmental Assessment Worksheet, a study that could have delayed the wells for a year. Naramore said the EAW wasn't necessary now that Offutt's 54 applications and preliminary notifications were cut down to five.

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Past article:

Feb. 5, 2015: DNR: Pines-to-potatoes land conversion trend could pose threat to water quality, supply

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"We simply don't see the potential for significant environmental effects from these five applications in terms of impact to water availability, water quality, potential for habitat loss," she said.

Commissioner Tom Landwehr ordered the discretionary study in February, citing concerns the unusually high number of wells being applied for could put undue stress on the state's natural water supply. In addition, the DNR worried about the land conversion from former Potlatch timber forests into farm fields for crops such as potatoes, and the potential threat to rare species that reside in jack pine forests similar to the type being cut, including the northern goshawk, Blanding's turtle and certain species of wild strawberry.

Naramore said instead of an EAW specifically examining R.D. Offutt, the DNR plans to undertake a broader scientific study of how land conversions would affect the Pineland Sands area.

The DNR will seek funding for the study from the Legislature in 2016, Naramore said. The study is in the conceptual phase, so the preliminary $1.5 million estimated price tag may change, she said.

Nothing in the agreement prevents the company from reintroducing the withdrawn applications, but if Offutt were to introduce more well applications on top of the agreed-upon five, "there's a very real chance that we might need to look at where we were in the study, whether we had the information that we needed to make a decision" on the applications, Naramore said.

"I think the company has a good appreciation for the kind of information we need," she said.

McGovern said Offutt doesn't plan to apply for more wells or buy more developable land in the area until the results of the studies are finished.

Offutt's expansion plans in Pineland Sands have "definitely been reduced," McGovern said. The company had planned to build seven wells a year, with each irrigation well covering a field of 120 acres of crops.

McGovern said of the remaining five wells and fields Offutt wants to be developed, two of the fields are already cleared and have crops on them, and three of them still have brush and stumps from when the Potlatch company sold them but no "real cover" of trees.

Naramore made sure to note Offutt didn't have DNR approval of the five well applications in the bag as a result of the agreement.

"We haven't made any decisions on these permits, nor have we represented to the company that it's a done deal," she said.

The proposed Pineland Sands study would examine not only the effect of land conversion on the water aquifer, but also on the species that depend on the forest habitat, Naramore said.

The study would involve the DNR teaming up with the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, the Department of Agriculture and the Department of Health. Offutt would also aid the study, but Naramore said she anticipated most of their involvement would be data collection and letting their land be studied rather than providing funding.

In a DNR press release accompanying the announcement, McGovern said the company supported the study idea.

"Our company has a long and deep history of implementing best management practices and sustainable farming, and we look forward to working with the various state agencies to better understand the land and help preserve our quality of life," McGovern said.

ZACH KAYSER may be reached at 218-855-5860 or Zach.Kayser@brainerddispatch.com. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/ZWKayser.