Living Cover: A New Strategy to Protect Drinking Water, Lakes and Streams

APA Minnesota Chapter


Thursday, September 28, 2017
3 p.m. - 4 p.m. CDT

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“Living cover” includes perennial crops, native grasses and prairie plants, cover crops and forests – all of which hold water on the landscape, filter contaminants, reduce runoff to lakes and streams, and allow clean water to recharge aquifers, protecting drinking water sources.  Explore a range of tools that encourage living cover, from water quality credits to easements, cost-share programs and, of course, planning and zoning.

Both agriculture and clean water are central to Minnesota’s economy and quality of life. Agricultural practices have intensified in recent decades in response to global market forces, state and federal policy, and climate change – the range for growing corn and soybeans now includes northern Minnesota, and pinelands in the north central region are being converted to potato crops. These landscape-scale changes contribute excess nutrients and sediment to Minnesota’s waters, to the point where up to 40% of surface waters are not swimmable or fishable and drinking water supplies in many communities are threatened by high levels of nitrates.

One approach to this intractable problem is to promote living cover – to increase the amount of land covered with perennial crops, permanent vegetation, cover crop plantings, and shoulder season crops such as winter wheat and rye.  The challenge is how to provide incentives for farmers to plant these crops, especially in the most vulnerable locations.  Without a market for perennial crops, there are few options short of permanent – and costly – easements.

This session will focus on several new initiatives that promote living cover.

• The Working Lands Watershed Restoration Program – a new report by the Board of Water and Soil Resource to the state legislature that will identify incentives for landowners to grow perennial and cover crops to improve water quality, and assess potential uses of these crops for grazing, livestock feed, heat, power, or biofuels.

• Prioritizing living cover in high risk wellhead protection areas – agricultural best management practices in wellhead protection areas are essential, but are not enough to prevent contamination of groundwater. Establishing living cover in high risk areas can prevent and reduce groundwater contamination.

• Trading of water quality credits to support planting of perennial crops in vulnerable wellhead protection areas, as currently being demonstrated in the Cold Spring and St. Peter areas.

Learning objectives:  Attendees will gain 1) increased awareness of the connection between living cover and water quality/drinking water supplies; 2) knowledge of resources available to assist in water supply protection efforts; and 3) ability to incorporate strategies for increasing living cover and improving water quality in local plans and regulations. 


Pete Moulton

Pete Moulton is Public Works Director for the City of Saint Peter, and was formerly the Water Utilities Superintendent. Read More

Tannie Eshenaur

Tannie Eshenaur, MPH, is Planning Director for Drinking Water Protection at the Minnesota Department of Health. She works with private, local and state agency partners to develop and implement strategies that will ensure safe, sufficient and affordable drinking water everywhere in Minnesota, now and in the future. Read More

Suzanne Rhees, AICP


Contact Info

Jane Kansier,