A group of environmental organizations say nitrate pollution in drinking water has reached crisis proportions in southeast Minnesota, and it's time for the feds to step in.

They are taking the unprecedented step in Minnesota of formally requesting the Environmental Protection Agency to take emergency action under the federal Safe Drinking Water Act. State and local regulators have failed to lower dangerous nitrate levels in groundwater with voluntary measures that aim to curb pollution from farms, they say.

Southeast Minnesota's groundwater is particularly vulnerable to nitrate pollution because of the many sinkholes and fractures in the porous limestone underlying the region.

"This contamination poses an imminent and substantial threat to human health, and the problem is not getting any better," the groups said in their request submitted Monday.

It's not clear whether the EPA will act on the 98-page request. But the submission itself signals the depth of frustration in Minnesota's karst country with pollution largely traced to farm fertilizers and manure.

Nitrate originating in large-scale agriculture has been one of the state's most aggravating environmental problems. The invisible and odorless acute contaminant has polluted lakes and rivers, aquifers and drinking water wells and continues to force communities to pay for drilling new wells and installing new treatment. In response, the state adopted the Groundwater Protection Rule in 2019, its most comprehensive action to prevent nitrate pollution, though farms continue to expand.

The emergency request was submitted by 11 local and national organizations, led by the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy, on behalf of residents in eight southeast Minnesota counties. About 80,000 residents in those counties rely on private wells for their drinking water, and about 300,000 people are hooked up to public water systems, according to the request.

Rural residents with private wells have been largely left out of the state's major nitrate control efforts, the groups said.

The eight counties are: Dodge, Goodhue, Fillmore, Mower, Olmsted, Wabasha, Houston and Winona.

The most well-known effect of drinking water with high nitrate is the potentially fatal condition called blue baby syndrome, in which infants are starved of oxygen. Federal regulators imposed a limit at 10 milligrams of nitrate per liter of water several decades ago to guard against that. Newer research links drinking water with lower levels of nitrate to other health effects: colorectal cancer, thyroid disease and neural tube defects.

Specifically, the groups asked the EPA to investigate the region to pinpoint the parties responsible for contamination and figure out why the state's permitting regime and best management practices haven't succeeded in protecting the area's groundwater.

Just identifying sources "would be a huge step forward," said Carly Griffith, water program director at the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy.

It also asked the EPA to order polluters to provide free alternative sources of drinking water for people whose wells are contaminated, and prohibit construction or expansion of concentrated animal feeding operations unless nitrate concentrations are lowered.

Of about 32,000 private wells tested for nitrate in Minnesota through the Township Testing Program, some 9% exceeded the nitrate limit of 10 milligrams. Most of those are in southeast Minnesota, said Leigh Currie, the Center's Director of Strategic Litigation.

The EPA has received several similar requests in the past decade to invoke its emergency powers under Section 1431 of the Safe Drinking Water Act. The federal regulator outlined the broad scope of its authority in guidance issued in 2018, following the drinking water disaster in Flint, Michigan.

"Actual reports of human illness are not required to establish the presence of a 'substantial' endangerment to water consumers," the guidance said.

The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency issued a joint statement with the state departments of health and agriculture, saying not all nitrate comes from farming and pointed to its groundwater protection rule and a nitrogen fertilizer management plan as evidence that they're working on the problem. They acknowledged that "more work is required" by everyone.

Warren Formo, executive director of the Minnesota Agricultural Water Resource Center, whose members include about two-dozen major agriculture groups, said it wants to find a path for both farm prosperity and safe drinking water, and the farm community is "actively engaged" with the groundwater problem in karst country.

One community mentioned in the request is Utica, a city of about 250 in Winona County surrounded by dairy farms and rolling fields. It was forced 20 years ago to relegate one of its wells to emergency backup status because of nitrate contamination, according to the submission. But nitrate levels kept creeping up, and reached 8.6 milligrams recently.

Utica decided its only real option was to drill a new well. The town is increasing water rates to help pay for the upcoming $2 million project, although a loan and grant package from the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Rural Development Program will cover most of the cost, said Utica City Council Member Robbie Floerke.

Floerke is a police officer by day. He bluntly summed up Utica's nitrate dilemma.

"It stinks."

Utica is not a party to the request. Floerke wasn't aware of it until informed by a reporter.

"If it's funding to help these smaller towns, I'm all for it," Floerke said, standing by the main water well next to the railroad tracks that cut through Utica. "I'm surprised it hasn't come up sooner given how big a problem it is down here."

Nowhere has the problem been more apparent than Winona County. The county has been enmeshed in a legal battle with local mega-dairy Daley Farm of Lewiston, one town over from Utica. The family has sought to expand its operations to nearly 6,000 animal units, or about 4,400 cows, which is significantly beyond the county's limit of 1,500 animal units per feedlot. Records show the Daley family also owns hundreds of acres of land in Utica's drinking water supply management area, which covers about 6,600 acres south of town.

It's not just groundwater. Winona County also has suffered four fish kills in local rivers in the last decade. Most recently, manure and pesticide runoff killed at least 2,500 fish in Rush Creek, mostly brown trout, near Lewiston.

Taking a break from washing her car in her driveway in Utica, Tanya Ferguson said that she hauls her family's drinking water in stainless steel drums from her parent's organic farm about 5 miles away. Ferguson, who works as a nurse at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, stores them in the garage and keeps pitchers in the refrigerator.

"It's just how it is," she said.

Ferguson and other residents were reluctant to blame farm practices for Utica's predicament. Agriculture is an economic driver of the area. What's happening in the fields south of Utica is probably affecting the town's water, Floerke said, but he doesn't want to "step on their way of life."

"It's a fine line," he said.

Floerke said he has four children and everyone at his house drinks the tap water. He said he trusts state regulators on the 10 milligram per liter safety limit and will take his chances.

"I'm a police officer in the neighboring town," he said. "You never know what's going to happen the next day."

Utica's new well will go twice as deep to a different aquifer. Construction likely won't start until next year.

Walking the few blocks home from the main well, past the pickups parked shoulder to shoulder outside Brewskie's Bar & Grill, Floerke talked about how he enjoys living in a quiet town where everyone is familiar. He wants Utica to survive, he said. He doesn't want all the new costs to break the town and drive people away so it becomes a ghost town.

"That's my biggest fear," he said. "I know there's people having a hard time paying their water bills as it is."