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EPA directive renews debate over state’s role in protecting drinking water from farm pollution

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EPA directive renews debate over state’s role in protecting drinking water from farm pollution

Feb 22, 2024 | 6:05 pm ET
By Madison McVan
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EPA directive renews debate over state’s role in protecting drinking water from farm pollution
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Hydrologist Paul Wotzka describes the topography of his farm in Weaver, Minnesota Wednesday, Dec. 14, 2022. Wotzka runs well water testing clinics for other people affected by high nitrates in the area. Photo by Nicole Neri/Investigate Midwest.

For more than 30 years, Minnesota elected officials have directed time and public money into plans designed to address the growing issue of agricultural pollution in groundwater, largely with incentives for farmers to voluntarily adopt practices that reduce fertilizer runoff.

Rep. Rick Hansen, DFL-South St. Paul, was on a 1989 Nitrogen Fertilizer Task Force that outlined best management practices to reduce nitrate pollution. 

Decades later, Hansen found himself in a committee hearing room, listening to the same proposals, even as the problem has worsened.

“The outcome has been more fertilizer use, more nitrates,” Hansen said Thursday. “Things have to change.”

The federal government agrees. Environmental Protection Agency officials informed state agencies in November that Minnesota hasn’t done enough to protect drinking water from nitrates — a toxic byproduct of fertilizers and livestock manure — in southeast Minnesota. 

Drinking water with high levels of nitrate can cause methemoglobinemia or “blue baby syndrome,” a potentially life-threatening condition affecting the blood’s ability to carry oxygen throughout the body. Pregnant women and infants are particularly vulnerable to the effects of nitrates. Nitrates have also been linked to thyroid disease and certain cancers.

People who get drinking water from private wells are at high risk of consuming water with dangerous levels of nitrates because well owners are responsible for their own testing and treatment — unlike municipal water systems, which constantly monitor and address nitrate levels.

The House Agriculture and Finance Policy committee met Thursday afternoon to hear informational presentations by a University of Minnesota soil health expert and Minnesota Department of Agriculture staff, setting the stage for forthcoming debates over how to address the EPA’s mandate to take further action on nitrate pollution. 

At least since the Legislature convened the Nitrogen Fertilizer Task Force in 1989, the state’s approach to nitrate pollution was to define and encourage “best management practices” for farms in various parts of the state, from the timing of fertilizer application to erosion control efforts and use of cover crops. 

The Minnesota Groundwater Protection Rule, which took effect in 2019, took the best management practices approach one step further, adding a mechanism for the state to mandate adoption of certain practices in narrow cases — only if, after a period of several years, best management practices have been adopted on less than 80% of a drinking water supply area’s cropland, and the nitrate issue in the area is getting worse.

(The rule only covers the state-designated Drinking Water Supply Management Areas, which represent a small percentage of the state’s cropland, but the potential problem is vast: Minnesota farmers planted about 8.5 million acres of corn in 2021, according to the USDA, 15% of the state’s total surface area.)

The EPA letter focused on southeast Minnesota, which is dominated by karst terrain, meaning water — and the nutrients it collects — easily moves between the surface and underground aquifers.

But other areas of the state are also dealing with the downstream effects of fertilizer runoff. 

Many farm industry groups oppose government regulation of fertilizer, and lawmakers including Rep. Steven Jacob, R-Altura, instead want to address the issue by creating additional incentives, like tax credits, for farmers to adopt best management practices (HF4044).

Minnesota already offers assistance to farmers wanting to implement best management practices, including grants and low-interest loan programs, though demand exceeds the funding for those programs, MDA staff said. The state also runs the Minnesota Agricultural Water Quality Certification Program, which certifies producers who take measures to reduce nitrate pollution and prioritizes them in technical and financial assistance programs.

Hansen has seen enough carrots and wants more sticks: He’s proposing a 99-cent fee per ton of nitrogen sold to fund an assistance program for people whose private wells are polluted (HF4135). Under Hansen’s plan, that fee would increase if the amount of fertilizer sold in the state increases.

Minnesota Department of Agriculture Commissioner Thom Petersen was absent from Thursday’s hearing — he is on a trade mission to Cuba, MDA staff said.