Environmental groups release statement on draft groundwater protection rule

Press Statement on Gov. Mark Dayton's Proposed Groundwater Protection Rule

Last week, Gov. Mark Dayton and the Minnesota Department of Agriculture (MDA) released a revised proposed draft groundwater protection rule to protect drinking and groundwater from nitrate contamination.

Nitrogen fertilizer applied to corn crops can readily leach into water. Because of this and other practices, communities across the state are facing high nitrate levels in their groundwater: 537 public drinking water systems across the state have elevated nitrate levels and roughly 10% of private wells in vulnerable areas already exceed state and federal health-risk limits for nitrate.

State authority to protect ground and drinking water was established in 1989. After decades of delay, the state is proposing to use this authority to protect our groundwater and drinking water. The MDA’s efforts are a commendable step toward protecting drinking water for many thousands of residents. However, the proposed draft rule also leaves many vulnerable Minnesotans unprotected.

We applaud the MDA for recognizing the need for change, and we are grateful for their willingness to listen to farmers, experts, citizens and communities across the state as they work on significantly rewriting the flawed original draft rule. The MDA held 17 public meetings engaging over 1,500 individuals and reviewed over 820 public written comments.

This proposed multi-part rule limits the application of some cropland fertilizers in the fall or on frozen soils in the highest risk areas. It also establishes a framework and takes modest steps to encourage, and then require, farm operators to modify practices to reduce pollution to public drinking water supplies where nitrate concentrations are increasing or remain high. Protection of these public drinking water supplies is a fundamental responsibility of our state, and this proposed rule is an initial step in protecting the quality of the water sources for Minnesotans in these communities.

Shortcomings

As we await the details, we note two significant shortcomings in the MDA’s draft rule.

We are disappointed that this rule does not extend all its protections to those Minnesotans who may need it most: private well-owners. Elevated nitrate levels are occurring in private wells across the state. Many thousands of Minnesota families, especially in rural areas, rely on these private wells for their drinking water. Yet these families would remain at the mercy of more voluntary actions to protect their water — actions that have failed over the last generation. Under this rule, private well-owners will not receive even the modest drinking water protections that their neighbors in town will receive.

Secondly, the pace of change built into the rule’s framework for well protection is far too slow. A farm operating on a public water supply wellhead area can go many years before being required to adopt the practices needed to effectively protect the community’s drinking water. Communities shouldn’t have to wait a decade or more for safe drinking water.

Leave no residents behind

This rule represents a start and an opportunity to show that we can act to protect our drinking water supplies, so that everyone benefits — farm operators, local economies, and communities who rely on wells. But we can’t protect just some residents.

We look forward to working with MDA to strengthen the proposed rule to leave no residents behind. All Minnesotans deserve access to clean, safe and affordable drinking water.

We stand ready to work with Gov. Mark Dayton and his agency to stop any attempts to roll back their authority to act to protect our public health and water quality.    

Clean Up the River Environment (CURE)
Clean Water Action of Minnesota
Environment Minnesota
Freshwater Society
Friends of the Mississippi River
League of Women Voters – Upper Mississippi River Region
Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy
Minnesota Environmental Partnership
Minnesota Trout Unlimited

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