ECM Editorial: Drinking water reaches a crossroads in Minnesota

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“Water is gold, and it is getting more valuable,” says Gina McCarthy, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency director.

Her words convey the growing public health focus on ensuring an adequate supply of safe drinking water, threatened to varying degrees around the country by agricultural contamination, overuse of groundwater and underinvestment in aging distribution systems.

Add grievous human error and you have Flint, Michigan, where an austerity measure imposed on a bankrupt community robbed its refashioned water system of a key anti-corrosion treatment. Flint was left with an outbreak of Legionnaire’s disease and untold worry over a generation of youngsters whose consumption of unsafe amounts of water-borne lead leaves them at heightened risk of neurological disorders.

In Minnesota, Gov. Mark Dayton promises to give the quality of our lakes, rivers, streams and drinking water his utmost attention during his last three years in office. He has asked for approval this year of $220 million in new water investments.

Amid all this attention, citizens and lawmakers want to know: Where do we stand? Is the water safe to drink?

Largely, yes, the Minnesota Health Department says in its latest annual drinking water report. The department, which regulates municipal water systems, is charged with federal Safe Drinking Water Act compliance.

“Minnesota has an excellent record in terms of water quality violations,” Dr. Deborah Swackhamer told the ECM Editorial Board.

Swackhamer is a retired professor of science, technology and public policy at the Hubert H. Humphrey School of Public Affairs and is on the staff of the University of Minnesota’s Water Resources Center.

Where safety is threatened, nitrates generated by agriculture are an increasingly prevalent but hardly new cause. Since 2008, the number of Minnesotans served by public water systems required by Safe Drinking Water Act standards to treat for nitrates has grown from 15,000 to 50,000, according to the Health Department’s May 2015 water report.

Last year residents of Randall in Morrison County learned that one of their town wells had to be shut down because it was fouled by nitrates exceeding 10 parts per million, the federal drinking water standard. And about 105 “non-community” water systems in Minnesota — those serving some schools, resorts or other businesses — exceeded the standard in 2014.

The Clean Water Fund created by the Legacy Amendment sales tax that Minnesota voters approved in 2008 is a needed boost for local cleanup efforts. The Health Department aims to use a portion dedicated to water projects to help 505 vulnerable community water systems — more than half of Minnesota’s 963 such systems — make water-protection plans by 2020.

Passage of Dayton’s funding request is also needed to increase communities’ access to low-cost loans that make such projects affordable. But even with Legacy funds and Dayton’s budget boost, the work will have just begun.

Minnesota’s Clean Water Roadmap, a Legacy project, calls for a 20 percent long-term reduction in the state’s groundwater nitrate levels.

With up to 20 million acres of land in row crop production, it’s no secret that unregulated application of nitrous fertilizer, especially for King Corn, is the chief source of nitrates.

“The livelihood of Minnesota, one of its livelihoods, is growing corn, and yet it’s also one of the major polluters of drinking water and our other water,” Swackhamer said.

Her idea to use Legacy funds to pay farm set-asides and help farmers cultivate markets for new crops deserves consideration in future years. Taking only 5 percent of the most erodible farmland out of row-crop production would greatly curtail pollutants, Swackhamer said.

Meanwhile, the public pipes that deliver water to our homes are in many cities aging beyond their useful, and healthful, lives. That’s also true in many homes.

Flint isn’t the only community with old lead pipes. Some 6.1 million remain nationwide, according to the American Water Works Association. And while most of the risk of excess lead in tap water can be managed through corrosion control at the treatment plant, the AWWA declared in March that the safest course is eventually removing the pipes at a cost of more than $30 billion.

In Minnesota the biggest costs await the system rebuilds and retrofits that will be needed to guarantee generations of safe water supply.

Only in the last decade or so have observers fully grasped the unsustainable rate at which aquifers are being depleted compared with their much slower recharge rates, Swackhamer said, pointing to the Jordan-Prairie Du Chien aquifer complex, which supplies about 75 percent of the metro region’s groundwater.

Her future gaze is on the mighty Mississippi, which already supplies water users in St. Paul and Minneapolis.

“In terms of the quantity issue, it’s a question of just getting people to go back to using surface water,” she said. “It’s more expensive. But it’s a sustainable choice. The other option is to, five generations from now, not have enough water, period.”


— An opinion of the ECM Editorial Board — second in a series of editorials the board will publish this year on the topic of water. Reactions to this editorial — and to any commentary we publish – are always welcome. Send to: [email protected].


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