A drinking water crisis in the small town of Adrian, Minn., this spring is highlighting Minnesota's larger problem with farm chemicals polluting wells and surface water.

Located just 18 miles west of Worthington — where Gov. Mark Dayton is scheduled to talk Thursday about requiring farm buffer strips to clean up Minnesota streams, rivers and lakes — Adrian is one of eight Minnesota communities relying on special equipment to treat water with excessive nitrate levels in municipal wells.

For the second time since the town purchased a nitrate-removal system in 1998, the facility has failed, and City Hall has declared the water unsafe for infants and expecting mothers. While the public utilities department works on a $15,000 repair, the town is issuing vouchers for free bottled water at local stores.

"It's just part of living in Adrian," said Rita Boltjes, deputy clerk-treasurer. "We watch [water quality] closely and whenever there's an issue we take every avenue we can to make everyone aware."

Elevated levels of nitrates in drinking water can cause blue baby syndrome, which damages a baby's ability to carry oxygen to vital organs, in bottle-fed infants under 6 months of age, and the National Cancer Institute has suggested a link between elevated levels of nitrate in drinking water and an increased risk of non-Hodgkin's lymphoma.

Dayton's appearance in Worthington, with Agriculture Commissioner Dave Frederickson and Department of Natural Resources Commissioner Tom Landwehr, is designed to address a slightly different problem — farm chemicals that run off into surface waters. Dayton has proposed legislation requiring farmers to plant 50-foot wide buffer strips along streams and creeks to block and absorb flows of nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment.

Both situations underscore rising concern over farm chemicals that find their way into Minnesota's waters. Most nitrates in Adrian's municipal water come from surrounding agricultural lands, according to Adam Henning, the town's public works superintendent.

Expensive problem

Treating the water for nitrates has become one of the largest nonsalary budget items for the town of 1,200. Boltjes said the city's annual cost to treat the contaminated well water has ranged up to $53,365, or $44 per resident, when the system is running properly. In addition, Adrian just recently paid off a $259,000 loan to originally purchase its nitrate-removal equipment. Boltjes and Henning said the loan was finally paid off just before the breakdown, which occurred in mid- to late February due to a rusted-out gear.

But the public cost of groundwater contamination isn't always as obvious as it is in Adrian, according to Karla Peterson, a supervisor in the Community Public Water Supply Unit of the Minnesota Department of Health. Some communities with wells polluted with nitrate levels approaching the federal limit of 10 parts per million are blending water from one well with cleaner supplies from other wells, sometimes in deeper aquifers, she said.

Other communities have simply capped polluted wells, digging elsewhere for cleaner water, she said.

In addition to Adrian, Peterson said, six other communities are operating nitrate-removal systems: Hastings, Edgerton, Ellsworth, St. Peter, Pipestone and Darfur. And the town of Lewiston shut down a well that was high in nitrates and is pumping from a deeper well contaminated with naturally occurring radium, which is being removed at a treatment facility.

In Minnesota, the Department of Agriculture oversees efforts to control nitrate losses from nitrogen fertilizer. Human septic systems and livestock manure also contribute to the problem in Minnesota, but the department is developing a rule to restrict fall application of nitrogen fertilizer and applications to frozen ground in areas vulnerable to groundwater contamination.

Tony Kennedy • 612-673-4213