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Daily News Blog

22
Jan

Nitrate Contaminates Water for Half a Million People in Minnesota

(Beyond Pesticides, January 22, 2020) About half a million Minnesotans have been subject to drinking water contaminated by nitrate, according to a new report by the Environmental Working Group (EWG). Synthetic fertilizer and manure runoff from cropland are the leading causes of the toxic water pollutant. Nitrate consumption is linked to cancer and blue baby syndrome, a fatal infant blood disease. As the state begins to address the issue through the newly instated Groundwater Protection Rule, advocates say the reaction may be “too little, too late.”

EWG analyzed federal and state nitrate test results from all public water systems where groundwater is the main source in Minnesota from 2009 to 2018. The Minnesota Department of Health fulfilled EWG’s public records requests and the group searched the data for contamination code number 1040: nitrate.  

Researchers at EWG found that 727 public groundwater systems serving 473 thousand people tested positive for at least 3mg/L of contamination at least once in the 9 years of analyzed data. 124 systems tested positive for ≥ 10mg/L, of contamination, serving over 150,000 individuals.  

Coarse textured soils, karst geology and shallow bedrock are more vulnerable to groundwater contamination than other types of sediment. The EWG report states, “Almost 90 percent of public water systems with nitrate levels at or above 3 mg/L draw on groundwater in or very near areas considered highly vulnerable to nitrate contamination. About the same percentage of private household wells also draws on groundwater in these highly vulnerable areas. If you live in one of these areas, you are very likely drinking nitrate-contaminated water.”

After years of advocacy, Minnesota finalized a Groundwater Protection Rule last spring and it is being implemented this year. Farmers in areas with vulnerable soils or near highly contaminated water will be barred from applying synthetic fertilizer in the fall.

“We think it’s a move in the right direction, but we definitely think the rule falls short for several reasons,” says Sarah Porter, senior GIS analyst at EWG and lead author of the recent report, “It doesn’t address how much nitrogen goes down. And it only affects 13% of the cropland in the state, so it’s not that much.”

The rule only enforces the timing of application – not the amount. Retired University of Minnesota soils scientists Gyles Randall calls this “a big miss.” It does not address contamination by manure and advocates fear that the rule does not have much teeth for enforcement, either.  “After 20 years there won’t be any improvement in nitrate in the water,” says Randall.

The Star Tribune reported, “Steve Morse was a legislator in 1989 when he co-authored Minnesota’s Groundwater Protection Act. Today he runs the Minnesota Environmental Partnership and said he thinks it’s appalling that it’s taken 30 years to get regulation to address nitrate contamination.” Morse told the Tribune, “It’s kind of like a slow-motion Flint water crisis.”

Minnesota begins the process of contamination that sweeps down the entire Mississippi river system, ultimately dumping tons of nitrate into the Gulf of Mexico and causing huge “dead zones” caused by algal blooms and deoxygenation. In 2019, the dead zone was 6,952 square miles.

Beyond Pesticides has written previously about the risks to water, ecosystems, and organisms of nutrient- and pesticide-riddled agricultural runoff, not only from farms, but also, from golf courses and other managed landscapes, and about the advantages of organic land management. Beyond Pesticides advocates for the protective — and regenerative — advantages of organic, ecologically based agriculture. Stay current with developments in efforts to protect human and environmental health through its Daily News Blog.

All unattributed positions and opinions in this piece are those of Beyond Pesticides.

Source: Environmental Working Group, Star Tribune

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  • Archives

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