Access to clean, safe drinking water is something that today’s Minnesotans expect. However, increasing pollution may mean that it’s going to cost more to guarantee safe drinking water in the future.
In July, the Minnesota Department of Agriculture released the latest results of its private well testing program, finding that in some townships, 30-50% of tested wells had unsafe levels of nitrates. In addition, the 2015 Annual Drinking Water Report issued by the Minnesota Department of Health (MDH) found that nitrate pollution represents a growing threat to Minnesota’s drinking water.
Nitrates are chemical compounds containing a group of nitrogen and oxygen atoms. Nitrates enter water supplies mainly through agricultural fertilizer runoff, animal waste, and failing septic systems. The MDH report found that fertilizers applied to land used for row-crop production “are the biggest influence on Minnesota’s ground and surface water nitrate levels.”
Consuming drinking water with elevated levels of nitrates can inhibit the blood’s ability to carry oxygen throughout the body and is particularly dangerous to infants because it can cause a fatal condition called “blue baby syndrome.” When these elevated levels are found in drinking water, homeowners and municipalities face costly treatment challenges. For example, the city of Hastings spent $3.5 million to upgrade its water treatment facilities to reduce nitrates.
In 2015, Conservation Minnesota, together with a large coalition of partners, successfully supported the Governor’s Buffer Initiative, which increases filter strips along waterways and reduces nutrients like nitrogen and phosphorus from entering waters. This initiative is an important first step. However, the Minnesota Environmental Quality Board recently found that the state will also need to explore other drinking water protection strategies, such as expanding protected areas around wellheads, certification for sustainably produced agricultural products, and a fertilizer surcharge to help compensate communities that are forced to treat nitrate pollution.
Safe drinking water is a must for Minnesota. The question is whether we will protect it or pay millions to clean up pollution.