Excessive runoff from more than 23,000 animal feedlots across Minnesota has caused significant damage to the state’s water quality, according a new report from the nonprofit Environmental Working Group.
The EWG’s investigation into the issue of manure overload is the latest in its series of Minnesota-focused reports. While it’s based in Washington, D.C., the organization has a field office in Minneapolis along with two in California.
The organization isn’t without its critics. Rep. Paul Torkelson, R-Hanska, a Watonwan County farmer, objected to even allowing testimony from the EWG at the legislature’s Subcommittee on Water Policy, blasting the group as “anti-agriculture.”
Other legislators tend to view the group more favorably. Rep. Jeff Brand, DFL-St. Peter, who serves as vice chair of the House’s Agriculture Committee, said that from what he’s seen, the group does good, “science-based” work.
According to a 2019 EWG analysis, Minnesota’s water supply included unsafe levels of 10 toxic chemicals and illegal levels of four. Faribault, Northfield and Owatonna did not have illegal levels of any chemicals in their water, but all three cities have amounts of some chemicals above the level recommended by the EWG.
Particularly high is the amount of cancer-causing radium in the water. Faribault’s water contains 93 times the amount of radium recommended by the EWG, while Owatonna’s water had 34 times the recommended amount, and Northfield’s water 19 times.
While city water undergoes regular testing, one in five Minnesotans get their water from private wells that are not regularly tested. Many of those wells are in rural areas with high levels of water pollution from agricultural runoff.
Problems and possible solutions
To help ensure that those Minnesotans know exactly what’s in their water, Rep. Jeanne Poppe, DFL-Austin, partnered with Sen. Bill Weber, R-Luverne, on a bipartisan bill to create a pilot program for testing the health of well water.
Rep. Todd Lippert supports that bill and has introduced another that would expand the state’s Source Water Protection program to cover private wells. Lippert’s bill has two DFL and three Republican co-sponsors, including Torkelson.
Approximately 3% of the state’s land is currently protected under the Source Water Protection Program, protecting drinking water for 600 communities statewide. That land is subject to special environmental protections under state and federal law.
Despite bipartisan support, neither bill was able to achieve passage in the regular legislative session, halted by conflict between Gov. Tim Walz, a DFL-controlled House and a Republican-controlled Senate.
Improving water quality has been a major priority of state lawmakers for years. While Minnesota may be known as the “Land of 10,000 Lakes,” according to the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, 56% of the state’s surface bodies of water do not meet basic water quality standards.
According to the MPCA, approximately 85% of that pollution is attributable to so-called “non-point source pollution,” which includes runoff from animal feedlots and cropland. That pollution damages the water quality of surface and underground water alike.
According to an April 2015 report by the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, Swimmable, Fishable, Fixable?, “the majority of impaired waters are in the southern half of Minnesota, which has the highest number of stressors related to excess nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorus, excess sediment, lack of habitat and connectivity and impaired biological communities, all of which are known upshots of over application of livestock manure. More than half of these southern waters fail to the meet swimmable or fishable standards.”
In January, an EWG report noted that approximately 500,000 Minnesotans drink water with elevated levels of nitrates, which has been linked to severe health issues, including different types of cancer, elevated heart rates and a potentially fatal condition known as blue baby syndrome in which infants are deprived of oxygen.
The problem appears to be the worst in rural farming areas. According to the EWG’s latest report, 69 of Minnesota’s 72 agricultural counties saw levels of nitrogen from manure and fertilizer in excess of those recommended by the University of Minnesota and MPCA.
In 13 counties across the state, the amount of nitrogen in the water exceeded the recommended level by more than half. Three of those counties are local: Goodhue clocked in at 160% of the recommended level, Nicollet at 157% and Waseca at 154%.
According to the EWG, Goodhue County is also one of just nine counties in the state where phosphorus overload is of high concern. Once that phosphorus washes into area lakes, it can trigger algae blooms, which in turn produce toxic bacteria.
Feedlots and water quality
Because of the inefficiency of transporting manure, feedlot manure tends not to be dispersed evenly, but instead spread on fields near to the feedlot. That further increases overload and surface runoff near large feedlots.
Across the state, the issue with feedlots has become worse in recent years. Minnesota now has three times as many large feedlots as it did in 1991 and produces 49 million tons of manure annually.
In a prepared statement, MPCA Communications Director and Senior Advisor Darin Broton said that the agency has worked hard to improve water quality. Within five years, Broton said every watershed in the state will have a comprehensive water quality protection plan.
“Together with the Department of Agriculture and the University of Minnesota, the MPCA continues to assess possible measures to limit nutrient runoff from manure spread on farm fields,” he said. “To address phosphorus and nitrogen in the state’s waters, Minnesota relies on a holistic approach that does not single out one industry; rather brings all stakeholders to the table to find common sense solutions.”
Rep. Brian Daniels, R-Faribault, noted that the state has made significant investments in reducing the levels of many water pollutants in recent years, with assistance from funds provided through the Clean Water, Land and Legacy Amendment.
Still, Daniels noted that the amount of nitrates in water remains a sore spot. He expressed optimism that with continued investment in conservation efforts, the state could reduce the amount of nitrates in the water to safe levels.
For his part, Lippert said he expects the report to be a cornerstone of future discussions at the capitol in regard to water quality. He said that a key part of the equation will need to be supporting local Soil and Water Conservation Boards.
“Everyone needs access to clean water,” he said. “We have so many farmers that are working really hard to keep our water clean, and we need to make sure we’re supporting those efforts and allowing farmers to expand those efforts.”
Facing significant and rising building costs, Faribault’s Housing and Redevelopment Authority moved to pull the plug on efforts to rehabilitate a historic but dilapidated home.
Last year, the HRA purchased the tax-forfeited property at 1116 Second St. NW from Rice County. After considering several options, including potential demolition, the HRA initially opted to fix up the home and then sell it to a low-income family.
The HRA purchased for just over $20,000, but even though it had been in the possession of a the county, it wasn’t able to open up the home for a comprehensive site study until after the purchase agreement was closed.
At 120 years old, the property was known to have suffered significantly from neglect over the years. Architecture and design firm ISG, a frequent partner of the city, was hired to do a comprehensive conditions assessment. The results of the analysis left board members deeply concerned. At its last meeting, the HRA directed staff to again approach ISG as well as another local contractor about conducting a load test, which could help determine the viability of a rehab project.
Both contractors responded that while a load test would not be possible, other means could be used to evaluate concerns raised in the assessment. However, the HRA was hesitant to invest further in the house, fearing that it might cost more to fix up than it’s worth.
HRA member Jonathan Wood said he disagreed with that assessment. Wood, who has experience renovating and flipping houses during the early 2010s, said that based on the report, he believes the house could be rebuilt for $50,000 to $80,000.
Given the value of comparable value of profits in the area, the HRA then could choose to sell the rebuilt house for a solid profit. As an alternative, Wood suggested that the HRA could demolish the home and put a modular home in its place.
Wood went about soliciting bids from several area modular home builders. Based on the bids he’s received, he believes a two bedroom, three bathroom modular home could be purchased for $110,000, with a $40,000 additional cost for installing a foundation.
If the modular home is purchased for that price, the total cost would end up being slightly under $200,000, when taking into account all total costs likely to be incurred. Wood said that would be within the range of comparable properties in the neighborhood, though on the higher end.
He expressed optimism that the final bid might be as much as $30,000 lower, helping to ensure that the HRA comes as close as possible to not losing money on the deal. Even if the city loses a bit of money on the deal, he said it could easily be recouped in the following years.
“It’s good for the neighborhood as a whole,” he said. “Even if there’s a financial loss in the short-term, in the long term the city gets someone paying property taxes, the neighborhood gets a better home, and it creates a sense of pride.”
The rest of the HRA agreed with Wood’s judgement. HRA Member Narren Brown noted that the cost of simply demolishing the home and trying to sell the lot would be even more likely to cause the city to incur a significant loss.
Community Development Director Kim Clausen said that to go along with the home, the HRA would need to invest in new siding and roofing for the garage and a new driveway, which would need to be paved given its location.
Based on the HRA’s direction, Clausen said she will solicit bids for the home’s demolition and a modular home purchase in advance of the next HRA meeting., which is scheduled for Aug. 10.
Discussions surrounding the potential dissolution of a nearly four-decade cooperative athletic agreement between Faribault Public School and Bethlehem Academy have been set aside in favor of an in-depth look at why FPS students are open enrolling in other districts.
Every two years, Faribault Public Schools must renew its cooperative agreement with any schools it sponsors. In order to dissolve the co-op, the sponsor school needs to give its partner school a one-year notice following School Board approval. FHS’s cooperative agreement with Bethlehem Academy dates back 37 years, and declining enrollment over the past few years at FHS sparked a discussion on whether or not to continue that agreement. In theory, the co-op agreement may promote students to open enroll elsewhere.
The district in recent years has seen a precipitous drop in enrollment, and with it, funding. The decline’s a large part of why the district’s had to make deep cut in its 2019-20 and 2020-21 budgets.
The Faribault School Board initially discussed the possible severance at its June 8 meeting, but instead of making decision, the administration agreed to develop a committee to advocate for improved relationships between all area schools. The purpose of the proposed committee was to detect and repair deeper issues between the co-op partners. However, during a work session Friday afternoon, the board re-evaluated the potential co-op committee and ultimately discontinued the idea.
Superintendent Todd Sesker said he’s received emails from interested individuals inquiring when the co-op committee will start meeting.
During Friday’s virtual meeting, he invited the School Board to consider who would develop this committee — the board or community members. Either way, Sesker said he would be involved in the process.
None of the School Board members expressed a strong favored a co-op committee but instead offered alternative ideas for answering some of their questions in regards to co-ops.
Board member Yvette Marthaler felt more structure was needed in order for the board to make a recommendation, and Board member John Bellingham felt a committee wasn’t needed.
Added Board member Courtney Cavellier: “I think we need to decide whether this is the committee we’re looking for. From the discussion that happened, the committee I am most interested in convening is one addressing why our community is choosing to enroll elsewhere.”
Board Chair Chad Wolff said the board would discuss the possible development of an open-enrollment investigative committee during Monday’s virtual School Board meeting.
Wolff relayed his understanding that senior leadership wants the co-ops “looked at, potentially changed or potentially eliminated.” He himself wanted answers to the questions of why Faribault Public Schools co-ops with BA and not Shattuck-St. Mary’s or Medford, where to draw the line if more schools request partnerships, and whether or not the co-ops actually promote open enrollment.
Board member Jason Engbrecht clarified that co-ops are not the only reason for students open enrolling, and that taking a step back and looking at open enrollment as a separate issue might be a better approach to understanding its relation to co-ops.
Before the meeting, board members got Athletic Director Keith Badger’s answers to 18 of their questions regarding co-ops. In the document, posted on the Faribault Public Schools website, Badger said, “I can’t speculate whether or not co-op sports promote open enrollment and I don’t have any data to show for that. I would say that as long as the co-op does not bump us up a class, then yes, we would be willing to co-op because we have done this with other schools.”
Furthermore, Badger wrote that while the administration and leadership teams have discussed the pros and cons of ending the co-op agreement, no one has made a recommendation to the School Board. If faced with that decision, the board would need to reach a consensus based on facts and information provided.
Said Sesker: “We want to be on the right side of the decision and don’t know how to do that without providing all seven board members with data … Jamie [Bente, FHS principal] and I have been trying to give as much information as we can possibly give. We’re going to support either direction the board would go on this but would prefer to first give the best possible data.”