Getting to the Roots of Nitrate Pollution

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Ag Dept, Legislature Consider Groundwater Solutions

By Matt Doll, Minnesota Environmental Partnership

Last Tuesday, Governor Mark Dayton laid out a framework for the Groundwater Protection Rule to limit the movement of nitrates into Minnesota’s waters as part of the Department of Agriculture’s proposed work to implement the Groundwater Protection Act. The proposal aims to limit the overuse of nitrogen fertilizer in targeted agricultural areas to stave off some of the worst nitrate contamination affecting Minnesota communities and drinking water.

Acting on this contamination soon is crucial as more than 50 community water systems serving more than 225,000 people around Minnesota are currently working with the state to reduce elevated nitrate levels in their water systems. For now, they rely primarily on upgrades to treatment technology in their systems, addressing the symptom of nitrate pollution, not the cause: the high levels of nitrogen runoff and filtration from our state’s agriculture systems that are tainting our waters.

The Problem

Upgrades to water treatment facilities and maintenance can run up enormous costs for communities, with some costs per household ranging in the thousands of dollars – a tall order for many small towns. And Minnesotans with private wells, of which ten percent of those tested already exceed health risk limits for nitrates, face enormous costs of their own.

Our communities don’t have time to delay drinking water solutions. If the nitrate contamination in our water supplies isn’t addressed, the health and cost consequences will add up. Exposure to high levels of nitrates causes “blue baby syndrome” – a condition that causes serious breathing and circulatory problems in infants. Exposure has also been linked to certain types of cancer in adults. And once nitrates enter a groundwater supply, they don’t break down unless treated. Their prevalence in our drinking water will continue to rise without strong action.

The Proposed Rule

The Department of Agriculture’s Groundwater Protection Rule takes steps in the right direction, and it represents an improvement over the initial draft rule the Department proposed last year. We are especially glad to see that the Department moves to use their authority to protect the groundwater recharge areas for community drinking water supply areas around the state.

The framework of the rule would restrict nitrogen fertilizer use in the fall and winter in certain vulnerable areas, and implement special protections for wellhead areas of communities that are already struggling with nitrate contamination. But it’s disappointing that this rule does not extend protections to those Minnesotans who may need it most — private well-owners. And the pace of change in the rule is slow. Minnesotans shouldn’t need to wait a decade or more for clean drinking water.

Still, the proposed rule is a good opportunity to start developing drinking water protections that work for communities, farmers, and well owners across the state. MEP and our partners stand ready to collaborate with the  Department of Agriculture on creating stronger drinking water protections for all of Minnesota’s communities and families.

Unfortunately, some members of the legislature are seeking to move in the opposite direction, pushing a bill that would prohibit the Department of Agriculture from regulating nitrogen fertilizer and protecting our water.

How You Can Help

It’s critical that we act now and act boldly to protect our drinking water, for the infants at risk of health problems and the communities and rural citizens struggling to pay the cost to treat their contaminated water. If you want to stand up for our drinking water, there are several steps you can take:

  1. Call your legislators to tell them you oppose any attempt to challenge the state’s authority to protect our health from groundwater pollution.
  2. In May, the Department of Agriculture will open a comment period on the nitrogen rule plan and hold hearings throughout the summer. Share your comments online or at a hearing, and help make sure the revised rule holds water and protects drinking water for all Minnesotans.
  3. Help educate the public and policymakers on programs that would help transition our agriculture to a more water-friendly system of agriculture by raising cover crops and perennials that restore soil and keep our water healthy. Check out the Forever Green Initiative and the Working Lands Watershed Restoration Program, which would help advance these healthy practices and increase their productivity and economic viability.

The strongest way to advocate for Minnesota’s health and natural resources is to share stories with lawmakers in person at meetings and hearings. If you live in a community that has struggled with contaminated water, let us know! We can help you get in touch with your legislators and be a strong advocate for Minnesota’s waters – contact us at or call 651-290-0154.

MEP Press Release: Statement on Governor Dayton’s Proposed Groundwater Protection Rule

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