Minnesota Water Quality: What Are We Drinking?

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“Hastings Public Works Superintendent Mark Peine walks through the city’s water treatment plant in Hastings on Thursday, September 3, 2015. “It’s like a water softener in your house,” he said, with “vessels filled with media that remove nitrates as the water flows through them.” In 2008, Hastings spent $3.5 million to upgrade its treatment facilities to reduce nitrates in its drinking water. (Photo Credit: Pioneer Press: Jean Pieri)”

Article courtesy of Christopher Magan and Nick Ferraro | September 05, 2015 | Pioneer Press | Shared as educational material

TROUBLED WATERS

Part 2: More Minnesotans face pollutants in their drinking water, and the fixes can prove complex and costly. This is the latest in a series of stories looking at Minnesota’s water quality.

Next Sunday: A clearer picture of what can be done.

Tim Figge of Ravenna Township, south of Hastings, holds a jar of his well water which tests very high in nitrates, on Monday, July 20, 2015. (Photo Credit: Pioneer Press: Scott Takushi)

Tim Figge won’t let his grandchildren drink water from his home.

Like a growing number of Minnesotans, the Dakota County resident has seen the nitrate level in his private well water increase to unsafe heights.

In 1988, nitrate in his well at his home outside Hastings registered below 1 milligram per liter, but by 2013, it had spiked to 10 milligrams per liter, a level considered unsafe by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

“I’m 62, so I’m not going anywhere,” Figge said. “But I would like to see my grandchildren drink water from Grandpa’s tap, and that’s not happening right now.”

As Minnesota looks to protect and improve the quality of its drinking water, rising nitrate levels are emerging as a growing and costly challenge to homeowners and municipalities alike.

Nearly 100,000 Minnesotans in more than a dozen communities and an unknown number of private well owners have already had to address unsafe levels of nitrates in their drinking water.

The cost of these fixes can range from a few dollars to a few thousand dollars per household depending on the level of contamination and what needs to be done. The city of Hastings, for example, spent $3.5 million to upgrade its treatment facilities to reduce nitrates in its drinking water, while on the individual level, private well owners such as Figge can spend $700 to install a reverse-osmosis system to do the same.

Tim Figge of Ravenna Township, south of Hastings, has installed a reverse osmosis unit in his basement to filter his drinking and cooking water, photographed Monday, July 20, 2015. (Photo Credit: Pioneer Press: Scott Takushi)

The Minnesota Department of Health reported in May that a 2014 study of nearly 1,000 communities across the state found more than 60 had elevated nitrate levels — 3 milligrams per liter or more — in their drinking water. Fifteen had levels of 10 milligrams per liter or more — concentrations that can be dangerous for infants and pregnant women.

Nitrate is an organic compound containing nitrogen and oxygen. It enters the aquifers many communities tap for drinking water mainly through the runoff of fertilizers, animal waste and failing septic systems.

High levels in drinking water can inhibit the blood’s ability to carry oxygen throughout the body. Nitrates are particularly dangerous to infants and can lead to a condition called “blue baby syndrome,” which Minnesota hasn’t seen since the 1940s.

High levels of nitrate also can be an indicator that other contaminants are in drinking water. Cold Spring, Hastings, St. Peter and other Minnesota cities have had to drill new wells, upgrade treatment plants or install new transmission lines to blend water in order to address nitrates.

Gov. Mark Dayton, conservationists and public health officials largely blame farm runoff for increasing nitrate levels in Minnesota’s drinking water supply, and this year, the Legislature took a major step to reduce that runoff by tightening rules requiring vegetative buffer strips between row crops and state-protected waters and public drainage ditches.

Previous buffer requirements have been inconsistently enforced, and only a fraction of public drainage ditches required the protective strips.

The law, however, was not without controversy. Farmers say the one-size-fits-all approach of buffer strips isn’t necessary in an age of increasingly precise agricultural practices, and they fear that the required buffers will mean the loss of productive farmland and with it, income.

At a recent visit to Vermillion Elevator, an agriculture supply in rural Dakota County, Hampton-area farmer Al Bester said agriculture gets a bad rap when it comes to water quality.

“We get blamed for everything,” Bester said.

DRINKING WATER

Several communities with elevated nitrate levels draw their drinking water from the Prairie du Chien-Jordan Aquifer, which lies beneath much of southern Minnesota, Iowa and Wisconsin. About two-thirds of Twin Cities communities tap aquifers for their water, too.

In the east metro, cities from Scandia and Lake Elmo to Hastings and Rosemount have all reported elevated nitrate levels in their drinking water sources. And Hastings probably has been the hardest hit.

A little more than a decade ago, Hastings saw nitrate levels in its groundwater rise toward unsafe levels. City officials believed farm runoff, likely delivered to the aquifer by the Vermillion River that cuts through miles of farmland, was to blame. In 2008, the city spent $3.5 million on a water-treatment plant upgrade to lower nitrate levels, an estimated cost of $410 per household.

That bought what Mark Peine, the city’s public works supervisor, described as essentially a “very large water softener,” which uses positively charged ions to remove nitrates from the city’s source water. Today, Hastings’ treated drinking water has a nitrate concentration of about 4 milligrams per liter, down from more than 8 milligrams per liter before the plant upgrade.

Although nitrate levels in the city’s water before treatment appear to be on the decline, Peine said Hastings is ready with plans for more treatment upgrades should they be necessary. “We are watching it very closely,” he said.

Other communities are doing the same.

In Rosemount, public works director Patrick Wrase said the city’s wells in residential areas test well below the standard for nitrate. However, nitrate levels increase in water samples taken from wells in the more undeveloped parts of town to the east toward Hastings.

Wrase said Rosemount could blend water from multiple wells to address the higher nitrate levels, but doesn’t need to yet.

“We have options right now. We don’t believe it will reach levels where it will become a concern,” Wrase said. “As Rosemount becomes less agricultural and more residential, it is likely the nitrate levels will decrease.”

PRIVATE WELLS

Private residential wells such as Figge’s might be at the most risk to nitrate contamination.

A fall 2014 survey of 710 rural Dakota County wells found one in five had levels exceeding the 10-milligrams-per-liter standard. A similar 2013 survey of other rural wells found 32 percent fell short of standards for clean drinking water.

County officials currently are studying drinking water in Inver Grove Heights, a city with one of the highest concentrations of private wells.

Jill Trescott, the county’s groundwater-protection supervisor, said a well’s age and proximity to contaminants can play roles in the amount of nitrate found in the water. About 40 percent of Dakota County’s residential wells were installed before 1974 when the state adopted well standards. Those older wells are likely shallower and not built as diligently.

“If there’s any kind of contamination that’s happening right at the surface, the contamination is going to hit the older well a lot faster than it would with a newer well that has been constructed according to modern standards,” Trescott said.

But even more modern wells are susceptible, and removing nitrate from a private well is costly. Figge recently installed a $700 reverse-osmosis system to clean up his water.

“We are in an area — Dakota County — where the soil conditions are tremendously sandy,” he said. “So it doesn’t take a lot for nitrogen and other waterborne products to get in there.”

WATER PROTECTION

Dakota County is considered a leader when it comes to protecting public shorelands with the buffer strips championed by Dayton and conservationists. County officials boast that 95 percent of state-protected shorelands are now buffered by 50-foot strips of perennial plants.

But those protections didn’t come easily. The county had to beef up local enforcement powers to support a three-year campaign in 2011 to persuade landowners to comply with rules requiring the buffers.

Brian Watson, the county’s soil and water conservation district manager, said most landowners wanted to comply with the law — once they understood it. Guidance from county officials made compliance easier.

“It wasn’t as bad as we thought, but we had a bunch that were not compliant,” Watson said.

The buffers range from simple perennial grasses to habitat for pollinators and other animals.

Only time will tell whether Dakota County’s buffer initiative will result in improved water quality. Rivers, streams, lakes and drinking water supplies are routinely tested, but the amount of nitrate and other pollutants in Minnesota waters is cyclical and once nitrate gets into groundwater, it tends to stick around.

Improvements won’t be seen in black and white.

“I think that is probably the biggest challenge,” Watson said. “Our water didn’t get polluted overnight, and it is not going to get better overnight. You have to look for a trend in improvement.”

CONTINUED DEBATE

Opinions on buffers and nitrogen fertilizer application are never in short supply back at Vermillion Elevator, a third-generation, family-owned business where farmers have been going to buy products and trade corn, soybeans, wheat and other commodities since 1948.

Hampton-area farmer Bester said farmers are not the only ones to blame for nitrate and other pollutants in the groundwater.

“A lot of people put too much fertilizer on their lawns, and it runs off and it ends up in the Mississippi (River) and sometimes ends up in the groundwater,” said Bester, who stopped in with his son, Matt, on a recent weekday morning. “If we fertilized the field like most homeowners fertilize their lawns, we’d be broke.”

Bruce Peterson, a Northfield farmer and president of the Minnesota Corn Growers Association, said the renewed focus on protective buffer strips has elicited a range of responses from farmers across the state.

Peterson said his group supported the buffer deal lawmakers struck this year that essentially speeds up the enforcement of existing laws requiring the protective strips between row crops and state waters and around public drainage ditches.

Peterson acknowledged that many farmers remain skeptical that the buffers will solve Minnesota’s water-quality woes.

“It’s important to practice conservation across the farm,” he said. “Buffers are one of many practices that can improve water quality but, we stress, it is not the only one.”

Don Kamen, an Empire Township farmer, is quick to point out how farming practices have improved when it comes to applying nitrogen fertilizer. New technology gives farmers precise control over where and when fertilizer is applied to the land.

“The thinking for farmers used to be, ‘A little is good, a lot is better,’ ” Kamen said. “We’ve learned since, we’ve adjusted.”

Nevertheless, many farmers embrace the idea of buffer strips as a way to farm responsibly and protect water. There are state and federal reimbursement and grant programs that help farmers offset the cost of turning farmland into protective buffers.

“I think it’s a good deal,” said Greg Stoffel, who farms land along the Vermillion River. “I don’t think people should be growing corn right up against a river.”

Since 2012, Stoffel, who farms with his brother Dan, has enrolled nearly 300 acres into Dakota County’s Farmland and Natural Area Program, creating a permanently protected quarter-mile-long buffer along the Vermillion River.

But the Stoffels acknowledge that many farmers need to squeeze every penny out of their land.

“For some people, I guess, greed kicks in. They paid a lot of money for land, and they think they should farm as much of it as they can,” Greg Stoffel said.

He expects pushback across Minnesota from farmers opposed to buffer strips.

“I think a lot of them are going to be dang mad and they’re going to put up a pretty big fuss over it,” Stoffel said.

Christopher Magan can be reached at 651-228-5557. Follow him at twitter.com/chris_magan. Nick Ferraro can be reached at 651-228-2173. Follow him at twitter.com/NFerraroPiPress.

MINNESOTA’S TROUBLED WATERS PART 2

More Minnesotans face pollutants in their drinking water, and the fixes can prove complex and costly. This is latest in a series of stories looking at Minnesota’s water quality. Read past installments at TwinCities.com/Minnesota.

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