Minnesota’s drinking water: under stress, again

Drinking water has been under stress in parts of Minnesota for decades. Discussing it in the legislature has met with fierce resistance. The mere raising of the issue of nitrogen in ground water, the drinking water source for about 75% of Minnesotans, could be enough to label the speaker as “anti-agriculture.” Common wisdom held that, since federal law exempted agriculture from the Clean Water Act, nothing could be done anyway so it was not worth the trouble of bringing up the drinking water issue.

In the last several years things have started to change. In June 2013 the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency published “Nitrogen in Minnesota Surface Waters, Conditions, trends, sources, and reductions.” The report is long and full of data including the estimated yearly sources of nitrogen to surface waters (page 9). Not surprisingly, 72% comes from cropland. What was very surprising is that 30% is from cropland groundwater. Of the remainder, 37% is from cropland tile drainage and 5% from cropland runoff. To the extent that had been discussions about nitrogen, they were centered mainly around the harm to fish and other aquatic life or the hypoxia zone in the Gulf of Mexico. With the new report, the discussion about farm chemicals contaminating a neighbor’s drinking water well became harder to avoid. Add to that is the fact that nitrogen levels in our waters are increasing.

At the request of our Environment, Natural Resources and Agriculture Finance Committee last year, the DNR listed the “Hydrogeologic Areas of Concern.” The list which included the areas where the water supply is limited, is longer than anybody had expected.

One of the biggest changes in the last two years was the realization that, while federal law does exempt agriculture from the federal Clean Water Act, Minnesota’s groundwater protection act of 1989 is strong. Under the Minnesota act, our Pollution Control Agency and Departments of Health, Agriculture, and Natural Resources each have specific responsibilities to protect drinking water sources.

Just as White Bear Lake became the “poster child” for low lake levels because of overuse of ground water, the Des Moines Water Works appears to be on track to be the “poster child” for how to deal with contaminated drinking water sources; the Des Moines and Raccoon Rivers are severely contaminated with nitrogen. The StarTribune’s Maya Rao reports that Iowa’s largest water works is threatening to sue three rural counties for allowing drinking water to be contaminated by farm chemicals. Rao quotes Des Moines Water Works officials who say they spend as much as $7,000 a day on a special treatment to remove nitrates from drinking water and their ratepayers are ”tired of paying for other people’s pollution.” Moreover, if the problem continues, the Water Works will need to invest at least $85 million in additional equipment. Annie Snider of E & E News provides additional detail about the basis for the legal argument that the Des Moines Water Works is using; the levels of nitrates leaving the farm tile drainage networks; and the politics of challenging the agriculture industry.

Concerns about drinking water have been rising but there is a counter movement to roll back some of the protections that we do have. Elizabeth Dunbar, MPR, reports on two of the roll back bills that will be heard in the Environment and Natural Resources Committee next Thursday, February 26. Both bills, HF 616 and 617, would have water quality standards set by the legislature as part of the political process rather than by rule making, an executive branch process that must be based on science and have ample opportunity for citizen engagement and critique.

Some municipalities are objecting to implementing the new phosphorus rules for wastewater treatment systems that were designed to prevent excessive algae growth in rivers and streams. They do not want to pay the costs. But the bills go far beyond phosphorous and cover, among many other things, total suspended solids, chloride, sulfate and nitrate. Both bills fail to even acknowledge that wastewater is some other downstream municipality’s drinking water source and the bills only look at the cost to upgrade wastewater systems, not drinking water systems.

I will report again after the hearing.