It’s as Minnesotan as apple pie to mouth support for clean water, which makes for a puzzling disconnect from the inconvenient fact that the quality of the state’s legendary waters is spiraling in decline.

Agreeing that the problem is “serious,” Gov. Mark Dayton will convene a water quality summit in St. Paul on Feb. 27 to begin building support for ways to reverse decades of abuse of our lakes, rivers and streams.

Dayton’s first task is to convince a tuned-out public that the problem is really as bad as so many reports have said. And from that will come a realization that actually cleaning up impaired waterways is complicated, costly and cratered with political hazards.

Minnesota’s famous lakes are in varied stages of ruin, to the extent that “triage” is now necessary to save those still savable, then let go of those that aren’t. Rivers and streams contain levels of nutrients, toxins and carcinogens that surprise even the experts.

But what’s going on with water hidden in aquifers that supply much of the state’s drinking water offers a case study in the formidable challenge of cleaning up the mess. It’s about how power politics has trumped sound health and environmental policy, and how those who cause the problem have been given a pass while pushing off cleanup costs to others.

The issue is this: Well water pumped from aquifers in many parts of the state contains nitrates in excess of federal standards, requiring communities to develop and pay for alternate sources for safe drinking.

Nitrates in well water have been known to health officials for a half-century or more, and so has the cause: nitrogen fertilizers spewed in excess onto corn and soybeans, the state’s dominant row crops. Lesser sources are urban runoff and waste from animal feedlots.

Like other water quality issues in the state, groundwater contamination is a large problem that keeps getting worse, especially in the last 10 years.

Nitrate-laden water is a health risk, especially when consumed by infants whose tiny bodies are robbed of oxygen, leading to life-threatening “blue baby syndrome.”

Nitrates also mark the presence of other toxins such as atrazine, a nasty endocrine-disrupting herbicide that’s banned in Europe but not in the U.S., where it’s widely used on row crops and shows up in nearly every waterway sample in farm country.

The act of shielding farmers from responsibility for sullied water started way back in 1972 when a bipartisan Congress passed the Clean Water Act. Given the enormous power of the farm lobby at the time, the landmark law exempted “nonpoint” pollution sources such as chemical overuse in agriculture.

The exemption means that the cost of dealing with unsafe nitrates is pushed onto cities and towns, while folks with tainted private wells pay out of their own pockets for drilling a deeper well or carting in bottled water.

It’s not cheap.

Lincoln Pipestone Rural Water in Lake Benton, Minn., has seen water-treatment costs to remove nitrates double. Nearly $300,000 is added to user bills annually, on top of the $1.7 million the utility spent to install treatment equipment.

The Star Tribune reported recently that Adrian, Minn., turned to bottled water after its nitrate-removal system broke down. Adrian is one of nine towns that treat for nitrates, while another 60 are monitoring elevated levels that may soon require treatment.

A 2014 study for the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy estimated the yearly cost of nitrate contamination at up to $900 million. The figure includes nitrate-removal equipment, drilling private wells and buying bottled water, and indirect costs such as degraded air quality from making and using farm fertilizers.

One nitrate-prevention strategy is to plant cover crops like wheat and alfalfa that require much less fertilizer or grasses that soak up nitrogen, which, after all, is plant food.

That worked for a time around Edgerton, Minn., and other places where shallow wells are especially vulnerable to nitrate leaching. And it worked as farmers enrolled in the federal Conservation Reserve Program that took erosion-prone “marginal” land out of production.

No longer. The Environmental Advocacy center’s Kris Sigford said that as commodity prices spiked, farmers realized more income from cash crops than from CRP’s subsidy, so 825,000 acres of Minnesota grassland was converted to row crops heavily dosed with nitrogen fertilizer.

Minnesota’s Groundwater Protection Act of 1989 sought less-damaging farm practices, but the only control was voluntary restraint that farmer-interest groups successfully won from overly friendly political leaders.

Voluntary control always has been a high-sounding political dodge to feign action. It doesn’t work, and surely it hasn’t in the quarter-century that the toothless groundwater-protection law has been in effect.

The voluntarism folly is also playing out in Iowa, where the Des Moines Water Works has sued three counties upstream on the Raccoon River, seeking to recover nitrate-removal costs estimated at $1 million annually plus millions more for needed new equipment.

The utility says nitrates pour into the river — the city’s chief water source — through county-regulated drain tiles, making it “point source” pollution that’s covered by federal water law. There’s a similar drain tile situation in Minnesota.

A court date is set for next summer, and health advocates hope for a ruling that could shift nitrate-removal costs to the problem’s source: farmers.

Groundwater issues will be on the agenda at Dayton’s summit. Also attending will be groups such as the Minnesota Corn Growers Association, which is lobbying to ward off any meaningful regulation (just as the corn growers are working with other farmer groups to yank teeth out of a law passed just last year to require 50-foot vegetative strips around all waterways).

Everyone wants clean water, it seems, so long as the other guy pays for it. Just maybe things will be seen as serious enough this time to warrant real corrective action.

 

Ron Way, of Edina, is a former official with the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency and the U.S. Department of the Interior.