Long-awaited MDA rule opens door to protecting Minnesotans’ drinking water

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By Matt Doll, Minnesota Environmental Partnership – @mattjdoll

After a multiyear process and input from Minnesotans from around the state, the Minnesota Department of Agriculture has approved and is beginning implementation of its new Groundwater Protection Rule, which aims to start tackling the insidious threat of nitrate pollution in our drinking water. This rule regulates nitrogen fertilizer – the primary source of nitrate in groundwater – in vulnerable areas of the state, especially near communities already threatened by this contamination.

The rule is a relatively modest step, but it moves Minnesota in the right direction, and should be used as a bridge to more ambitious action on cleaning up our drinking water supplies.

A long-awaited protection using longstanding legislation

This rule – and the threat of nitrate contamination – has been anticipated by state law for three decades. MEP Executive Director Steve Morse was the author of the Groundwater Protection Act in the Minnesota Senate in 1989, authorizing the state to regulate nitrogen. This is the first regulation of fertilizer application that was taken by the state government under the legislation, while the nitrate threat has continued to grow since passage of the Act.

Nitrate’s threat to human health has been well-known since before the 1940s, when Minnesota first started taking steps to prevent its associated illnesses. The best-known hazard is methemoglobinemia, or blue baby syndrome, caused when babies or pregnant mothers consume nitrate-contaminated water. This respiratory condition is potentially fatal in infants.

More recent research indicates nitrate may also contribute to bladder and thyroid cancers in adults.

As more Minnesota communities and well-owners find their water contaminated by nitrate (requiring the expensive drilling of new wells in most cases) the need for action is increasingly clear.

The rule is a starting point to tackle the most imminent contamination

The Groundwater Protection Rule applies a ban on fertilizer application in the fall and winter within areas where groundwater and soils are particularly vulnerable to nitrogen infiltration. This translates to roughly one-eighth of the cropland in the state. It encourages best-management practices in especially at-risk areas where community water supplies are threatened. And it leaves a door open for stronger requirements in the future.

On its own, this rule won’t solve the nitrate crisis facing Minnesotans. While it will help a number of communities impacted by the high costs and risks of nitrate, it will have little direct benefit for private well owners, who are facing increasingly expensive and dangerous levels of contamination. But it’s a signal that the Department of Agriculture and the state government generally is getting serious about working with stakeholders to tackle this increasing challenge.

It’s clear that Minnesotans need strong solutions to the nitrate challenge. New conservation crops and farming techniques, like those developed by the Forever Green Initiative, are part of the solution: bringing them to farmland in vulnerable areas could significantly cut nitrogen infiltration of groundwater while providing new crops and profits to farmers and ecological benefits to the landscape. (The Forever Green Initiative saw its state funding more than double in this year’s budget in a significant win for clean water.)

Business as usual won’t help us make progress. But we have positive, win-win solutions to the nitrate crisis, and we’re steadily building the political will to make them a reality.

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