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.”