MINNEAPOLIS — State regulators blamed farming for rising nitrate levels in southern Minnesota surface waters in a new report Wednesday, citing the increasing use of drainage tiling as a major reason.
The study by the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency found that more than 70 percent of the nitrates in surface water in intensively farmed southern Minnesota come from cropland, where anhydrous ammonia and other nitrogen compounds are commonly used as fertilizer. The rest comes from sources such as wastewater treatment plants, septic systems, urban and forest runoff, and the atmosphere.
"I believe Minnesota farmers are committed to conservation, stewardship and water quality protection," MPCA Commissioner John Linc Stine said in a statement. "But collectively, too much nitrate is ending up in streams and rivers. We have to do better."
Drain tiles — the perforated pipes that farmers install a few feet under the surface of their land to carry away excess precipitation — are the top pathway by which nitrates travel from cropland to streams, the study found.
Cropland sources account for as much as 95 percent of the nitrate load in the Minnesota, Missouri and Cedar rivers, and the Lower Mississippi River basin, the study said. The Minnesota River adds twice as much nitrate to the Mississippi River as the Upper Mississippi and St. Croix rivers, which flow through less intensively farmed areas to the north.
High nitrate levels can harm fish and aquatic life, and can pose health risks to humans when they pollute drinking water wells. Nitrates flowing down the Mississippi from Minnesota are blamed for contributing to the oxygen-starved "dead zone" in the Gulf of Mexico, which the MPCA said is currently the size of Massachusetts.
Farmers have become more efficient at using nitrogen fertilizers over the past two decades, the study said, but raising water quality significantly will be expensive.
"While further refinements in fertilizer rates and application timing can be expected to reduce nitrate loads by roughly 13 percent statewide, additional and more costly practices will also be needed to make further reductions and meet downstream needs," the study said. "Statewide reductions over 30 percent are not realistic with current practices."
Doug Albin, a Minnesota Corn Growers Association board member from Clarkfield in southwestern Minnesota, said in an interview that he's more optimistic than the MPCA, and added that he's enthusiastic about seeing what farmers can do to address the nitrate problem while keeping production up.
"The problem is we've never been able to quantify and identify the problem," Albin said. "Farmers are great problem solvers. So now that we've identified the problem we can sit down and examine our farming operations."
Looking out on a green but wet cornfield, Albin said he's already trying to reduce the nitrates and phosphorous flowing out of the drain tiles on his farm in Yellow Medicine County. He said this is his first season using a "biofilter" that uses wood chips to absorb the excess nutrients flowing off his fields.
Environmentalists noted that the study found nitrate levels exceeding the state's safe drinking water standards at 27 percent of the monitored sites. They said the findings show the state's current approaches aren't working.
"The level of change needed is sweeping," said Kris Sigford, water quality program director for Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy. "This study shows conclusively that the dramatic impacts to our waters from nitrate loads can only be addressed by large landscape-level changes to agricultural practices and cropping systems. This level of change cannot be achieved through traditional voluntary conservation programs subsidized by the general public."
The MPCA used monitoring results from more than 50,000 stream samples from across Minnesota. It found low nitrate levels in the north, higher in the southern part of the state, and high to very high in south-central Minnesota. The agency also worked with University of Minnesota researchers to examine the pathways by which nitrates get into surface waters.
To address the problem, Minnesota state agencies are working on a strategy for reducing the state's contribution to the "dead zone." Minnesota contributes the country's sixth-highest nitrate load to the gulf, the report said.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture earlier this month announced a voluntary pilot project for four small Minnesota watersheds that will offer farmers incentives to reduce water pollution from their operations in exchange for protection from tighter future regulations. Controlling water pollution from agriculture has been a political and technical challenge. Because agriculture is exempt from the federal Clean Water Act, officials have emphasized voluntary measures so far.