By Daniel Wilson
Similar to what the EDA did in Flint, Mich., the EPA has determined that local Minnesota agencies have not been doing enough to protect south-eastern Minnesota residents from harmful elevated nitrate levels in their drinking water.
In response to this, most elected officials seem more interested in grandstanding against imagined enemies than working on a solution. This is to be expected, as the EPA lays this disaster squarely in their laps.
We must first lament that for the past 30 years, there have been farmers who have had chemo for cancers caused by nitrates in their groundwater. Some of our neighbors have contracted a myriad of entirely preventable diseases. Kids in our schools have experienced developmental delays. Babies in our daycares have experienced birth defects and the potentially fatal “blue baby syndrome” all because of preventable, unsafe levels of nitrates in our groundwater.
Regardless of how you feel about the EPA’s ruling, it is clear that how we have been treating our water for the past 30 years has not worked, and a change is needed.
In the short term, our public health officials need to determine which wells are contaminated and how to provide safe drinking water to those residents. We need to ensure that water filtration systems are quickly added to homes with no expense to the homeowner.
The long-term solution will require a clear vision that prioritizes the financial and public health of our rural communities. A farmer’s financial well-being is not at odds with the quality of his drinking water. Those who say so are only looking to pit us against each other for a quick political win.
There are hundreds of farms in this area, including mine, that make a profit while improving the water that moves through their fields. Farmers have found that many farm practices that reduce nitrate runoff also make farms more profitable in the long term. Unfortunately, these are the exceptions and not the norm because it has become too difficult to enroll in programs that make it easier to adopt these practices.
I recently enrolled our farm into the Conservation Stewardship Program. It took me three years, and working with three different conservation agents to finally get it done. For most farmers, who squeeze in planting and harvest in between off-farm jobs, this simply does not work. It is up to policymakers to ensure that groundwater-friendly farming is more profitable and easier than the alternative. This will require making conservation dollars abundant and easier to access while increasing staffing for conservation agencies. Not only is this possible, but Olmsted County is already doing it with great results.
Nitrate contamination of groundwater is a problem that can be fixed, and it must be. For too long we have allowed different agencies and politicians to pass blame, while rural residents deal with a crisis not of their making. We who live rurally deserve clean drinking water, and we deserve elected officials who understand what is at stake and are willing to lead on it.