In 20 communities around Minnesota, the drinking water supply is so contaminated with toxic nitrate from farm pollution that the state has the obligation to change the way farmers fertilize their fields.

Yet four years after the state adopted its Groundwater Protection Rule, the Department of Agriculture has produced plans to help only three of those communities. One of the 17 waiting for action is the southwest Minnesota town of Ellsworth, which had to warn residents in July not to give the tap water to infants because of a spike in nitrate.

In interviews, Department of Agriculture officials acknowledged the slow start to the new drinking water strategy. There's significant background work that goes into the new action steps, and the pandemic delayed crucial in-person meetings with farmers, who must carry out what the state recommends, said Agriculture Commissioner Thom Petersen.

Petersen said he's confident the three action plans will cut nitrate pollution. The department is making progress building trust with farmers to change their ways to benefit water, he said.

"This is, to me, a nation-leading effort to address nitrate in groundwater," said Petersen. "We're moving on it. I know it's not going to be fast enough for the environmental groups."

The completed action steps target a 60,000-acre watershed for Hastings, the Dakota County seat; and much smaller areas affecting Adrian in Nobles County in southwest Minnesota; and Verndale in Wadena County west of Brainerd. All three have been forced to spend millions to install treatment systems to keep nitrate in their tap water below the current health standard of 10 milligrams per liter.

Hastings may have to add another treatment plant to keep nitrate levels in check. Ryan Stempski, the city's public works director, said he's not sure what impact the new farmer plan will have — or when. He said he feels like the city is on its own. The regulation of the ag industry is "just not in our control."

The plans are based on what farmers can achieve with so-called "best-management practices" designed to maximize crop production with the least fertilizer to help cut the nitrogen leaking away. Environmental groups have long argued they are heavy on farm economics and light on protecting water. The practices are also voluntary, with no prospect of mandatory action for three years or more. And they don't include valuable alternative practices to cut nitrate, such as planting cover crops.

Environmental leaders said the three action lists are inadequate, and the lag time is leaving too many communities at risk.

"Disappointing and a raw deal for the public," said Jamie Konopacky, a Milwaukee environment lawyer who worked for years on Minnesota's nitrate contamination. "It is too slow and too small to protect water and public health."

One Hastings area farmer said the plan won't change the way he does business, and called the state's effort "ridiculous." Kevin Bauer attended a few meetings about the plan. He said he farms about 3,000 acres of corn, soybeans, peas, sweetcorn and green beans. He said he's very careful with nitrogen fertilizer, and plants cover crops.

"I feel I'm doing everything above and beyond what they're asking," Bauer said. "I don't think they're going to change anything with their practices. I don't think our nitrates are any higher than they've ever been."

A long-standing threat

The long-awaited Groundwater Protection Rule that passed in 2019 aims to address a problem that has bedeviled rural America — reducing nitrate leaching from farms, which are largely exempt from the federal Clean Water Act but are a major contributor to widespread nitrate contamination of drinking water supplies.

While the current 10 milligram limit was set to prevent a rare but fatal syndrome in infants, lower levels of nitrate contamination have been linked to other health risks such as colorectal cancer, thyroid disease and neural tube defects and central nervous system cancers in children. Some, such as the Washington-based nonprofit Environmental Working Group, say the health limit should be lowered.

One part of the state's new groundwater rule banned farmers in areas with the most vulnerable groundwater from applying nitrogen fertilizer in the fall. It's a complaint-driven system, and so far, the department has received one. The department concluded that an Iowa man violated the law when he fertilized fields in Houston County in southern Minnesota last November. It sent a notice in January saying he was being "advised" not to do this.

The department has no information on whether the targeted fall restriction, which covers only a small portion of Minnesota's crop land, is effective.

Meanwhile, it's been trying to assess the many hot zones with contaminated drinking water. The background work includes sophisticated modeling to understand how nitrogen was infiltrating groundwater, and investigations to rule out contamination from other sources, such as fertilizer dealers.

Representatives of the department met four or five times in the past few years with local advisory teams for Verndale, Adrian and Hastings, groups consisting of farmers, local and state officials and others, including agronomists from fertilizer dealers in at least two cases.

By law, the farmer steps at this stage could only include voluntary best-management practices, along with nitrogen fertilizer recommendations developed years ago by the University of Minnesota to "optimize profitability" and reduce nitrogen escaping into water.

If farmers follow all the new action steps issued across most of the land, modeling shows it would reduce nitrate contamination in the Hastings area by 6% to 12%. In Adrian, those practices could reduce it by 30%.

In Verndale, farmers are already doing an "excellent job" using best-management practices so only by doing further measures, such as growing more grass, could nitrogen by reduced by about 10%, the department said.

Farmers can voluntarily take further steps to reduce pollution.

Three years from the adoption of the plans, the department could move to the next stage: requiring mandatory reductions from farmers.

Environmental advocates roundly criticized the plans as toothless. The fertilizer cuts appear modest, and they don't require farmers to take measures that scientists say are proven to reduce pollution: planting cover crops, switching to perennial crops like hay or more experimental ones such as Kernza or putting land into pasture or conservation.

Steve Morse, executive director of the Minnesota Environmental Partnership, said the plans don't indicate they are even trying to reach the requirement in statute that the public's groundwater should not be polluted by human activities.

"How long do we have to wait before they actually take measures and steps that will actually protect the groundwater?" Morse said.

Trevor Russell, water program director at Friends of the Mississippi River, said he's "a little heartbroken." The group has focused on nitrate contamination because it's one of the river's main pollutants and contributes to the "dead zone" in the Gulf of Mexico.

"This is the most basic element of life and health, and it feels like our state is spinning its wheels when it comes to protecting what's most important," Russell said.

"I know we're better than these plans."

The Department of Agriculture defends its plans as the minimum measures in a larger strategy that includes many discussions of alternative practices, said Margaret Wagner, manager of the department's fertilizer nonpoint section, and Larry Gunderson, a supervisor in the section.

Wagner acknowledged that alternatives would lead to higher reductions in nitrate leaching. But they can be challenging and expensive for farmers, she said. Growers are more likely to adopt riskier changes if they're engaged in the process and it's voluntary.

"Those types of relationships we can build on and will result in adoption of additional practices," Wagner said. "Farmers have come to the table to participate in this."

Not all of them have. In Verndale, the farmer who works the largest amount of land in the town's drinking water zone did not attend any of the local advisory team meetings over two years. Luke Stuewe, a Department of Agriculture fertilizer management unit supervisor, said the farmer supports the plan. The farmer, Joe VanDam, declined to comment for this article.

Chuck Clanton, a farmer on the Hastings advisory team, agreed with Bauer that most producers use the best practices spelled out for Hastings. They're "baby steps," he said, but still worthwhile and may be "bringing the skeptical people up to speed."

Adopting alternatives isn't easy, said Clanton, a retired University of Minnesota professor who taught environmental issues with livestock. Minnesota's short growing season makes some cover crops a challenge, and putting land into pasture could cut profits in half.

"I think we're on the right track," Clanton said. "Is it enough? I guess we'll find out in 50 years."