State releases plan to address SE Minnesota water crisis

(ABC 6 News) – On Dec. 1, 2023, the Minnesota Department of Health, Department of Agriculture and the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency responded to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Nov. 3 letter concerning state efforts to reduce nitrate contamination of drinking water in eight Southeast Minnesota counties and the state’s plans to limit health impacts in already contaminated areas.

The three agencies’ commissioners penned the response to the EPA and will be referred to as “the State.”

The State agreed the nitrate contamination in SE Minnesota drinking water poses an health risk for Minnesotans and offered a three point plan.

The State wrote that the Minnesota Department of Health (MDH) is the lead public health agency and holds primary authority in regards to the federal Safe Drinking Water Act. However, implementation of the Clean Water Act falls to the Minnesota Department of Agriculture (MDA) and the Minnesota Pollution Agency (MPCA).

These three agencies work in collaboration with other state agencies and boards to share information, resources and “ensure maximum effectiveness and efficiency.”

The Safe Drinking Water Act sets safety standards for drinking water, whereas the Clean Water Act addresses pollution entering into the water system.

To effectively address the Southeast Minnesota water crisis affecting an estimated 1.1 million Minnesotans, the State said it will need to redirect “current limited resources and significant additional resources in the coming years.”

As directed by the EPA, the State intends to address the nitrate issue in three phases:

  • “An immediate outreach program to again notify affected residents using private wells with known nitrate concentrations above the Maximum Contaminant Level and to provide alternate water to vulnerable population
  • “A public health intervention to ensure safe drinking water for private wells users in the mid-term in which well owner participation in voluntary
  • “Enhanced long-term environmental and conservation strategies to reduce nitrate concentrations in the aquifers that provide drinking water.”

Immediate Response

The State will work with local governments to develop outreach and education programs (Social media, news releases, paid advertisements and brochures directed to child serving facilities).

The State will also implement a “Tap-in” in collaboration with the Olmsted County Soil and Water Conservation District and other local public health agencies. The tap-in will offer water testing and “strengthen outreach.”

Funding for the tap-in will be sources through a Clean Water Fund pilot grant.

Existing data from previous testing will be used to notify residents who use high risk private wells.

For vulnerable populations, pregnant people and infants under 1, provide vouchers for bottled water thru clinics, faith communities and local partners

The State expects to have a complete plan by Jan. 15, 2024.

Long-term Solutions

Watersheds in the eight-county area will undergo a comprehensive watershed management plan to improve water quality.

Each area covered by the petition has an approved management plan and will receive $9.5 million between July 2023 and June 2025 to implement local actions.

Further funding may be available for several more years should local governments and landowners apply for more grants or loans to reduce nitrate levels.

The Minnesota Nutrient Reduction Strategy (NRS) intended to address nitrate pollution in Minnesota waters since 2014.

The NRS will feature area information including sources of excessive nutrients in state waters goals for reducing said nutrients and ways to track those goals.

However, the State wrote that the NRS is “being updated based on new information, the latest science, and changing climate and land use.” A revised NRS will be available in 2025, featuring scaled up approaches and strategies to address rising nitrate levels in the Karst region.

The MDA developed a “Nitrogen Fertilizer Management Plan” to reduce nitrate levels in areas with vulnerable groundwater. The MDA intends to work with local farmers on a township level to adopt healthier water practices.

Meanwhile, the MPCA manages feedlot and wastewater permit programs that regulate water discharges. The MPCA has recently adopted stricter permit requirements in order to address nitrate issues in water.

The current plan in operation includes two requirements that reduce the transfer of nitrogen from soil to water. However, the State is now reviewing suggestions made by the EPA and petitioners to include future feedlot permits.

In 2024, the above mentioned wastewater program will include the Wastewater Nitrogen Reduction Strategy developed with stakeholders in 2023.

In 2019, the MDA began implementing the Groundwater Protection Rule; the rule prohibits autumn application of commercial fertilizers on 71% of Karst cropland (about 1.1 million acres) to protect community water supplies with already elevated levels of nitrate.

The MDA will work further with local farmers to implement improved practices that will positively impact ground and drinking water.

The state will participate in stakeholder engagement to further and previous recommendations and suggestions made by EPA and petitioners, as well as investigate other options in meetings this winter.

ABC 6 News will announce such meetings for the public to participate in.

The full letter from the Minnesota agencies to the EPA can be read below.