Solving our waters problems requires dealing with the pesticide issue

Remarks at Environmental Initiative forum, March 3, 2016

When we are at our best, Minnesotans are problem solvers. However, we can’t do our best work unless we define the problem correctly.

Right now, when we define our water problem, we say there is too much nitrogen in both our groundwater and in our lakes, rivers and streams. Just before the water summit, PCA stated:

“(n)itrate is one of the most common contaminants in Minnesota’s groundwater and comes from sources like agricultural fertilizer and animal manure. Up to 60 percent of the groundwater samples from monitoring wells in central Minnesota are contaminated with nitrate well beyond the safe drinking water standard. Drinking water contaminated with nitrate can lead to illnesses such as Blue Baby Syndrome, a fatal blood disorder in infants.”

In those sentences, PCA give us three messages: we care about children, there is an unsafe level of nitrogen in drinking water in some parts of Minnesota, and since there are no reports of Blue Baby Syndrome, nitrogen is an issue but not a worry yet. No urgency here.

However, the Department of Agriculture’s own data shows that where there is nitrogen in groundwater, there very likely will be pesticides. And, if there is a lot of nitrogen, then it is very likely that there will be a lot of pesticides. The problem for children is not nitrogen, it is pesticides. Now we have the very definition of urgency.

The Department of Health may be able to tell us what might be a safe level of one pesticide, but where there are multiple pesticides, current science can’t tell us about the cumulative or compounding effect of pesticides even when individually some or all may be at very low levels. So what do we tell well owners, especially well owners with children?

Just as White Bear Lake became the poster child for water quantity, Hastings is well on its way to becoming the poster child for water quality. In its 2014 Drinking Water report, the Minnesota Department of Health put the estimated cost of cleaning up contaminated water in Hastings at a staggering $9 million. That is for cleaning up municipal well water from nitrogen. The Department of Health has not yet wrapped its arms around the pesticide issue.

But not everyone in Dakota County drinks municipal well water. The Department of Agriculture has been testing private drinking water wells in Dakota County and has found nitrogen in hundreds of private wells. That’s bad enough, but what is even more problematic, many of the most contaminated wells were in the area designated as the source water protection area for the Hastings municipal wells. Clearly our source water protection plans need to be reevaluated. They are not protecting source water –mainly, I expect, because the areas have been identified but little or nothing has actually been done.

So what do we tell well owners. Hopefully we tell them the truth: where there is nitrogen, there very likely will be pesticides and, if there is a lot of nitrogen, then it is very likely that there will be a lot of pesticides. And even at low levels, we simply don’t know how they may interact or cumulate.

One additional problem; nitrogen is not a perfect indicator of pesticides. The Department of Agriculture’s data show that there can be pesticides even when there is no nitrogen present.

So now what?

Some well owners will want an alternative drinking water source. It is unfair, to say the very least, that well owners are put in the position of needing to clean up water that they did not contaminate or to otherwise find an alternative source. Providing help, especially to families with children, should be a shared top priority.

So are pesticides a problem just because they show up in groundwater; of course not.

The six and a half mile Whitewater fish kill last summer was described as an acute toxic event even though the likely pesticide culprits were not named. It wasn’t just the fish that were killed but every aquatic creature in the six and a half miles.

Pheasants eat the corn seed that is coated with neonics. Their young don’t have the insects needed to grow. Ask how pheasants are doing.

The most troubling indicator of all in the wild is the almost demise of two butterflies that once covered our prairies. Good observers say that they started to disappear with aerial spraying for soy aphids. What about the fate of the other pollinators in the same area—the native bees, moths, etc.? We don’t know.

Back to problem solving. It’s time to name the biggest threat to our waters and our pollinators. Now we have reason to move with speed.