The state of Minnesota has vowed to continue its long-term management to positively impact groundwater and drinking water in the region, but addressing immediate concerns of rising nitrate levels in southeast Minnesota will require federal funding and resources.
In a Dec. 1 letter from the commissioners of the Minnesota Department of Health, Minnesota Department of Agriculture and Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, the state rolled out its plan to meet the requirements by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to protect drinking water in southeast Minnesota from nitrate contamination.
“While we have made great strides in recent decades to ensure the safety of drinking water in our state, there are a variety of threats that must be acknowledged and addressed by all levels of government,” read the letter.
Executive branch agencies split authority for water, with the Minnesota Department of Health as the lead for the federal Safe Drinking Water Act, while the Clean Water Act is implemented by shared work of the Minnesota Department of Agriculture and the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency.
the EPA notified the state that it had 30 days to submit a time frame for providing education and outreach as well as alternative drinking water to residents with water above the maximum contaminant level — 10 mg/L or 10 parts per million — for nitrates in groundwater from their private wells.
In their response, Minnesota agencies committed to these immediate priorities along with a plan that addresses all seven components outlined in EPA’s letter.
But to do so, the state will need more resources than it currently has.
“It should be noted that this increased level of activities will require redirection of current, limited resources and significant additional resources in the coming years,” read the letter. “In the coming weeks, we will be reaching out to U.S. EPA Region 5 to discuss potential federal resources that can be provided to the State of Minnesota to support these efforts.”
Step one: outreach, vouchers
An outreach and public education program will be crafted and rolled out by the three agencies working together along with local governments and will be released through social media, news releases, paid advertisements and more.
The agencies also highlighted a Clean Water Fund pilot grant to Olmsted County Soil and Water Conservation District, which includes a “collaborative of (soil and water conservation districts) and local public health agencies” that was developed in six of the eight counties included in the petition.
“We will work through this established local network to include the additional counties and strengthen their outreach and testing activities,” read the letter.
Using existing data from the Minnesota Department of Agriculture’s Township Testing results and local public health laboratories, the agencies will identify private wells that exceed the health risk limit. Affected residents will be notified and provided with available treatment options.
“For vulnerable populations, pregnant people and infants under 1 year of age, we will provide vouchers for bottled water through clinics, faith communities, and other local partners as appropriate,” read the letter.
Step two: public health intervention
The details of the public health intervention are currently in discussion with the agencies, according to the letter, along with local partners. A plan is expected to be complete by Jan. 15, 2024.
“The plan will include strategies to address the seven components outlined in your letter: coordination of government partners; identification of private wells; free testing, alternate water, and remediation where needed; robust communication and outreach; public access to data and plan progress; and quarterly reporting to U.S. EPA Region 5.”
Step three: long term solutions
In its November letter, the EPA noted that Minnesota needed a long-term solution for reducing nitrate in its surface water and groundwater.
“We do have important elements of this solution in place,” read the Dec. 1 letter from state agencies.
Minnesota manages surface waters through a “robust” watershed framework that has been in place since 2008, according to the letter, and southeast Minnesota region will see an influx of funding to improve upon that framework, with more potentially to be tapped.
“As of 2023, each watershed in the eight-county area covered by the petition has an approved comprehensive watershed management plan and will receive $9.5 million from July 2023 and through June 2025 to implement local actions to improve water quality,” read the letter. “Pending future legislative appropriations, continuing funding may be available to them for several more years. Local government and landowners can apply for millions more in grants and loans to achieve nutrient reductions.”
Minnesota’s Nutrient Reduction Strategy was released in 2014 to specifically address nitrate pollution affecting Minnesota water resources. The agencies said the strategy is being “updated based on new information, the latest science, and changing climate and land use,” and a revised version will be available in 2025.
The Nitrogen Fertilizer Management Plan is meant to reduce nitrate levels in areas with vulnerable groundwater, and the plan works with farmers at the township scale to promote and adopt recommended practices to address local groundwater problems.
“MDA supports research and demonstration projects to inform the development of fertilizer best management practices (BMPs) and works directly with the agricultural community to adopt these practices,” read the letter.
The MPCA — which operates feedlot and wastewater permitting programs — recently incorporated permit requirements to address nitrate. The letter said the agencies are reviewing suggestions made by EPA and petitioners for inclusion in future feedlot permits.
MDA began implementing in 2019 the Groundwater Protection Rule, prohibiting fall application of commercial fertilizer on 71% of cropland or approximately 1.1 million acres in southeast Minnesota, in response to elevated nitrate levels in water.
“MDA is using state-of-the-art computer modeling tools to evaluate the environmental effects of different agricultural practices in different settings, including for the karst areas of southeast Minnesota,” read the letter.
Minnesota agencies will conduct stakeholder engagement with partners starting this winter to consider suggestions made by EPA as well as investigate other options.
“This is long-term, adaptive management work that is already in progress, and will operate while more immediate assistance is provided to southeastern Minnesota residents,” read the letter.
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