Arlene Nelson, who owns an organic dairy farm with her husband LaVern near Whitewater State Park, have had to dig a deeper well to try and find clean water for their cows and drinking water. She washes her hands in the tap and the reverse osmosis filter faucet at right is suppose to be for drinking water.

Brian Peterson, Star Tribune

Poison on tap

  • Star Tribune
  • March 30, 2011 - 1:08 PM


Here in the heart of southeast Minnesota farm country, everyone knows you don't drink the water.

"It's just not safe," Linda Liebfried said one recent afternoon as she watched over a couple of toddlers, including her own 2-year-old daughter, at a day care center. "Every doctor will say not to drink it."

The city's water is contaminated with nitrates -- chemicals from fertilizer that have been linked to cancer and can cause a potentially lethal blood disorder in infants. In Lewiston they come from nitrogen, applied every season on the fields that butt right up to the edge of town.

At the State Capitol and in town halls across the state, there is growing urgency to confront the problem. Thousands of private wells have been found to exceed state health limits for nitrates, and some communities have spent millions on filtration systems to clean their drinking water.

After four decades of progress against pollution from factories and cities, environmentalists say, Minnesota cannot take the next step in preserving its lakes and rivers without addressing one of the last, biggest sources of pollution: agriculture.

Unless farm runoff is vastly reduced -- and soon -- environmentalists say the state may never reclaim its heritage as the land of sky-blue waters.

"There are no mechanisms to curtail the huge loading of pollution, nutrients and sediment from agricultural runoff," said Whitney Clark, executive director of the Friends of Mississippi, an advocacy group. "We have to find a new way to do that."

Agricultural groups say farmers already are doing a lot to keep the state's waters clean, and that farm pollution today is far less than it was decades ago.

More importantly, farmers say, it's easy to blame agriculture in the absence of better research to identify the source of specific problems in each of Minnesota's 81 watersheds.

"One of biggest issues is the knowledge gap," said Warren Formo, executive director of the Minnesota Agricultural Water Resources Coalition. "What are agricultural effects on water quality, and how do we sort it out?"

A critical moment

Environmentalists say Minnesota's water is much cleaner than it was decades ago, thanks to the 1972 federal Clean Water Act, better farm practices and more recent state laws.

Nonetheless, 40 percent of the state's lakes and rivers are impaired, and with nearly half of the state's land mass devoted to crops, the vast amount of chemical runoff that comes from agriculture is a major factor. Unless agriculture moves faster, they say, the $80 million a year in clean-water funds that will flow from the 2008 Legacy Amendment water could be wasted.

Because time is running out.

Earlier this month Deborah Swackhamer, a University of Minnesota water quality expert, presented the Legislature with a 150-page, 25-year plan to clean up the state's waters. One of the primary recommendations: new laws that would require farmers to adhere to limits on pollution because the voluntary guidelines they are expected to follow now are not working fast enough.

"A lot could go downhill in the next 10 years," she said.

Vulnerable region

For some agriculturally intensive parts of the state, including the area around Lewiston, that future is now.

Last year Jeff Broberg, a geologist and clean water activist who lives nearby, was shocked to find out he is already living "the poisoning of the rural landscape." Broberg tested his well after the water coming out of his tap became fizzy from nitrogen gas. The results showed 19.2 parts per million of nitrates -- more than twice the health limit set by state and federal regulations.

Now he and his wife drink bottled water -- and "my wife is insisting we move," he said.

Broberg can look out his window and see the cause. The farmer who rents his land grows corn, the state's primary crop and one that demands enormous amounts of fertilizer. To make matters worse, up on the hill there's a huge blue tank that holds manure from the 3,000-hog operation next door. Each season that manure is spread over the land, adding more nitrogen.

But he also sees below the snow-covered fields to what makes the southeast corner of the state so vulnerable to groundwater contamination: its particular geology.

Broberg's house is smack in the middle of the state's "driftless area,'' known for its beautiful deep valleys, spring-fed streams and rich farmland.

This is where, 10,000 or more years ago, the last glacier stopped -- right along a line now marked by Hwy. 52. Here, there's no glacial "drift'' -- the 500-foot layer of gravel, dirt and rock that was left behind when the ice receded and that in other parts of Minnesota protects groundwater. Here, bedrock laced with fissures and sinkholes lies close the surface. It acts as a giant sieve, so that water -- and pollutants -- percolate down through layers of rock within hours of a rainfall and into underground aquifers.

Drilling deeper

Wells in the area's shallowest aquifers, 80 to 150 feet down, have been banned since the 1980s because of health concerns. Broberg's contaminated well is at 400 feet. A new one would have to be 500 feet and would cost $35,000.

Instead, he and the farmer who works his land, Bruce Gilbeck, had a talk out in the field. Broberg gave him a primer on soil and the area geology, and they came to an agreement. Gilbeck would change his practices in a way that would reduce fertilizer applications by more than a third. Gilbeck said he was following the best recommended practices for fertilizer application. Farmers, he said, don't want to put down more than they need because it's a waste of money. Still, cutting back on fertilizer will reduce his yields, he said.

"Nitrogen is a tough subject," he added. "I have friends who are organic farmers. I joke all the time -- if everyone went organic, there would be a lot of people starving."

For Broberg's well, it's too late.

"This is not coming back," Broberg said. "There is nothing I can do for the next generation to restore this water."

Deeper wells are not always the answer. Lewiston drilled a deeper well 10 years ago, but now the lower rock has contaminated it with radium, a heavy metal that can cause cancer. The city is blending water from two wells to weaken both health risks and is debating whether to build a new filtration system. Meanwhile, many residents are spending $800 or more for filtering systems for their homes.

"We have to pay extra for Culligan," said Courtney Matzek of Lewiston, who has an infant daughter and 3-year-old son. "It's a financial burden."

Officials from the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency say they can't say whether the problem of nitrate contamination is getting worse, or how much of the contamination comes from agriculture, as opposed to septic tanks or other sources.

Still, long-term measurements from around the state show that, while there have been declines in agricultural contaminants such as phosphorus and bacteria, nitrate concentrations are getting worse.

A state Department of Agriculture survey of 52,000 wells found that 10 percent exceed health limits for nitrates, and the rate is higher in agricultural areas. But the estimate could be low: About half the well owners said they never tested their wells.

Taking charge

But regulation? Even some landowners with contaminated wells are doubtful that's the answer. Two years ago, organic dairy farmers Arlene and LaVern Nelson put in a $26,000 well to protect their cows from nitrate concentrations that were nearly five times the health limit for humans.

Farmers, Arlene Nelson said, are trying to survive in an agricultural economy that rewards production over environmental stewardship. Regulations will only force the small ones out of business. The solution, she said, is to find a way they can thrive by "obeying the rules of nature instead of the rules of money."

That kind of effort is already underway in communities around the state, including the Whitewater River Watershed district, where the Nelsons farm. Last week the watershed board started regular meetings with farmers and landowners around the middle fork of the Whitewater River and Logan Creek to figure out how reduce the overload of nitrogen and sediment.

"The main issue is to get farmers to act on this so we don't have to have the Legislature put regulations on them," said Rudie Spitzer, chair of the Whitewater Watershed Board, whose jurisdiction includes the river and trout streams in Whitewater State Park. "It's coming. But if we can do the job ourselves, so much the better."

But others, including many environmentalists, are skeptical. With rising demand and skyrocketing corn prices, the 8 million acres of Minnesota devoted to corn will only increase -- as it has for the past decade.

Voluntary efforts are well and good, Broberg said.

"But I am dubious," he added.

Josephine Marcotty 612-673-7394

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