Minnesota state officials come up with action plan to address nitrate pollution after an EPA directive

Officials lay out plan to address high nitrate levels in drinking water

Jeff and Erica Broberg drink bottled water these days.

The couple says they’re concerned about high nitrate levels in the water at their Winona County farm.

“So, we stopped drinking water some 20 years ago,” Jeff says. “We bought our farm in 1986. It has 8.6 parts per million of nitrates then. Every time I tested it afterwards, it was higher.”

Broberg says that level is now 22 parts per million.

The Environmental Protection Agency says the safe drinking water limit for nitrates — which can come from runoff from fertilizers and animal waste — is less than half that.

“Started hauling our water,” Broberg says. “We hauled our water weekly from a friend’s house in St. Charles, where they have water that’s tested, and we know it’s pure.”

The Brobergs aren’t alone.

The EPA says there are more than 9,200 residents in southeastern Minnesota who are or were at risk of consuming water contaminated with nitrates.

But now, a month after an EPA directive calling for the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, the State Health Department and the State Agriculture Department to address nitrate pollution in the Karst Region, the agencies have come up with an action plan.

It includes:

  • Notifying private well owners that they have high nitrate levels, and providing them with alternate water sources
  • Ensuring safe drinking water for private well users
  • A long-term plan to reduce nitrates in aquifers that provide drinking water

“Nitrates are an acute contaminant,” says Carly Griffith, with the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy. “Even short-term exposure can put people’s health at risk.”

The Center is one of 10 groups that asked the EPA to step in.

Griffith’s concern is that high nitrate levels could increase the risk of colon, kidney and stomach cancers.

She says private well owners need help to ensure their water is safe.

“They don’t have any of the regulatory support that people on public water systems have, so it’s up to them if they want to test their water supply,” Griffith explains. “If they do test their water supply and find elevated levels of nitrate, it’s up to them if they want to treat their water, to get it down to safe levels.”

She also believes the state needs one coordinated approach to deal with the nitrate issue.

“One of the issues in Minnesota is that there is disjointed jurisdiction among multiple agencies that have different pieces of the groundwater issues,” Griffith says. “What this calls for is really a coordinated, one Minnesota solution.”

MDH says part of the state’s outreach plan would provide vouchers for bottled water for vulnerable populations, including pregnant people and infants under a year old.

In its letter to the EPA, the MPCA says it expects to have a complete plan in place by mid-January.

Meanwhile, Broberg wonders if his health has been affected by the water he’s drunk.

“I’ve had diabetes. A month ago, I was diagnosed with type-3 chronic kidney disease,” he says. “I don’t know if they’re lifestyle choices or water. But I’d hate to think future generations would have to worry about it.”