November 16 several hundred citizens came together at Eagle Bluff Environmental Learning Center to learn more about Fillmore County water quality. The forum featured five experts with various backgrounds, each with experience and knowledge about Fillmore County’s water.
Twelve organizations collaborated to present the forum, including Friends of the Root River, Fillmore SWCD, Minnesota Farmers Union, League of Women Voters, Fillmore County Public Health, Hiawatha Trout Unlimited, RAKC (Responsible Ag in Karst Country), Clean Water Coalition, Minnesota Well Owners Organization, The Izaak Walton League of America, Land Stewardship Project and MCEA (Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy). Each speaker was given 15 minutes in which to make their presentation.
Martin Larsen, a farmer and caver who owns 1,000 acres of land, spoke first. Larsen has a background in agronomy. He looked at the area karst systems with their porous limestone and sinkholes, the nitrate levels and soil health from both above and below ground level. Larsen explained the history of farming with the change from varied crops of 1941 to the use of commercial fertilizers and the loss of crop variation in 1976. The nitrate level steadily increased ranging from 19.4 to 24 ppm (parts per million) after a 2” rainfall. In 2016, Larsen decided to make some changes. He started planting cover crops that are 12” tall between row crops. He found that by using those cover crops, he could see a 30% to 60% reduction in nitrates in the groundwater.
The second speaker was Aleta Borrud, a retired physician with a masters of public health in epidemiology. Borrud looked to data from studies to find the facts. When the blue baby syndrome was discovered, it was learned that nitrates from contaminated water combined with red blood cells were the cause of the syndrome. An arbitrary maximum contaminant level of 10.4 ppm was set. N-nitoso compounds were found to cause birth defects such as spina bifida, cleft palate, anencephaly and preterm births.
The Iowa Women’s Health Study of 42,000 women from 1986 to 2011 found that bladder, ovarian and thyroid cancers developed with nitrate exposure just over 5 ppm. A Danish colorectal cancer study found that nitrate was a “probable carcinogen” and a level of 10.4 ppm is not safe enough.
An agricultural health study in northeast Iowa sampled well water and found herbicides and insecticides as well as nitrates. Borrud asked, “Are nitrates just a marker for what else might be there (in the water)?”
The third speaker, Monta Hayner, a fly fishing guide and marketing director of Driftless Fly Fishing, spoke of the economic impact of water quality. She pointed out that outdoor recreation is a $454 billion industry in the U.S. According to Hayner, recreational anglers contributed $1.1 billion to the local economy in 2008 with each angler spending about $4,000 per year.
Fish kills give anglers second thoughts about coming to an area; high rain events wash chemicals that have been applied to the land into the streams. A new buffer law requires perennial buffers along streams to filter out phosphorus and nitrates. Hayner ended by quoting Governor Walz when he declared, “Trout fishing is critically important to our economy.”
Paul Wotzka, a hydrologist who owns 80 acres near the Mississippi River, spoke next. Wotzka assured residents that the municipal water quality is good in Fillmore County; the municipal wells are very deep and have non-detectable levels of nitrates. On the other hand, private wells are shallower and almost 17% are above the acceptable nitrate levels.
Wotzka pointed to various factors that affect the water in Fillmore County. The karst is very porous which means everything done on the land ends up in the groundwater. The thin, wind-blown loess soils can disappear in the wind. With this area of Minnesota the wettest part of the state, the area is subject to both floods and drought. Wotzka stressed the need to build resiliency into land management.
Fillmore County alone has over 10,000 sinkholes; the porous nature of our land makes it even more important to conserve our resources. Wotzka noted that southeast Minnesota has a “rich history of both soil erosion and conservation.”
Wotzka urged private well owners to test their wells and take action to improve the water quality. Speaking to the private well owners he said, “You’re on your own – you are personally responsible for your water.” According to the Winona County Clean Water Coalition, the only place in Minnesota where the water quality is getting worse is southeast Minnesota.
The final speaker of the night was Carly Griffith, the water program director for the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy. Griffith opined that the current resources and regulatory support for private wells is not enough. She declared, “There is no silver bullet – it’s going to take silver buckshot! This is a public health issue.”
Griffith shared that EPA recognizes that the current nitrate standard is based on blue baby syndrome and that they need to look at cancers that are caused by a lower amount of nitrates. According to the Safe Drinking Water Act from last April, the EPA can act if there is too high nitrate contamination in karst areas. The EPA was asked to step in by a petition from many organizations and groups.
On November 3, the EPA gave the state of Minnesota 30 days to develop a plan and provide education, outreach and alternative drinking water for the estimated 9,000 people whose drinking water is at or above the maximum contaminant level of nitrates.
Griffith stressed the need for immediate relief for people whose water supply is contaminated. Prevention must be done by focusing on crop land sources and nutrient management. There is a need to work with farmers with a coordinated response across state agencies.
Residents wishing to get their private well water screened for nitrate and chloride can do so January 13 at a free water screening clinic from 10 a.m. – 4 p.m. at the Fillmore Central Elementary School, Preston. Water experts will be on site for consultation.
So, back to the original question, “How’s YOUR water?”