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Not in my backyard

Sun, Aug 20th, 2000
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Monday, August 7, 2000

"Not in my backyard," read a recent "Journal" article about the proposed trail that would connect Spring Valley to the Root River Trail system. "Not in my backyard," say the neighbors of the Reiland dairy farm and the Miller sawmill. "Not in my backyard," I say, thinking I can control my own sixty-two acres of woods. I will have no four-wheelers, logging or hunting here. But, I can hear four-wheelers speeding down the township road, the roar of chainsaws cutting the trees of the heron rookery, and guns in hunting season reminding me that the deer don't
know where my land ends and the hunter's begins.

Most of the oil from the spill near Lanesboro last year has not been recovered. Because of Fillmore County's karst topography, it could remain in a pocket of rock for millennia or contaminate a water supply fifty miles away fifty years from now. Karst topography consists of limestone bedrock that fractures unpredictably under thin soils that provide minimal filtration of contaminants. The county's sinkholes, blind valleys, caves, springs and disappearing streams are all karst features that make the interconnections between surface water and ground water complex and unpredictable. What happens in one backyard has implications for other backyards.

Wednesday, June 21: I have brought a sample from my well to the free water-testing clinic at the Canton Community Center. I feel secure with my well because it taps into old non-polluted water 280 feet deep and its casing and grouting comply with state well codes. I wouldn't have brought a sample if I hadn't volunteered to help at the clinic.

The testing today is for nitrates-nitrogen. My water has zero parts per million (ppm), but most other samples are showing more. Over ten ppm is not safe, especially for infants. Test results dating back to 1980 show about twenty-five percent of water samples in the county have unsafe nitrate-nitrogen levels. The karst topography, agricultural and non-agricultural runoff, leaking underground tanks, abandoned wells and continued use of wells that don't meet state codes all contribute to these unsafe levels.

I ask Donna Rasmussen, Fillmore County Water Planning Coordinator, how contaminants could get into a well like mine. She says they could enter the aquifer from which my well draws through an uncased well that penetrates the same aquifer. In addition, we are quickly consuming the finite supply of old water that was deposited before the existence of petroleum products, pesticides, herbicides and wastes from high densities of people and domestic animals. As we use the old, recent less clean water will percolate into the aquifer. I understand now the importance of conservation; the more water we use, the more likely it is that our children and grandchildren will inherit our sins of pollution.

Although this clinic only tests for nitrates-nitrogen, people should also test their wells for bacteria and other substances. If nitrates are in a water supply, other problems may exist there too.

Donna says that even with the use of best management practices, lack of knowledge, foresight or preparedness may produce unintended consequences. For example, people used sinkholes as dumps before anyone knew better. Drainage tiles were the way to go before anyone realized the adverse effects of concentrating runoff over impervious surfaces that allow for no filtration of contaminants. Manure lagoons, which are so common now, have the advantages of confining manure to a small area and then controlling its use in an ecologically sound manner. But, what happens if there's a leak?

Unintended consequences breed unintended consequences. The adverse effects of a lagoon leak multiply if the liquid manure runs off over impervious drainage tiles. Are we any more prepared to handle such an emergency than our government was to handle the recent wildfire threats to nuclear waste sites at Los Alamos, N.M. and, paradoxically, the subsequent threat of flooding because the scorched earth left nothing to absorb rain? What other unintended consequences of human activity await us?

As a member of the Fillmore County Citizens' Advisory Committee for Water Planning, I have had the opportunity and incentive to learn something of the complexities of water issues and their relationship to human activities. I have learned that we cannot live in isolation. We are as connected to each other as to land and water, as our veins and
arteries are connected to all the parts of our individual bodies. We can no longer say, "Not in my backyard."

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