Minnesota Soybean Business

Department dispatch: Nitrogen reduction work continues in southeast Minnesota

March-April 2024

A column by MDA Commissioner Thom Petersen

Nitrate-nitrogen is one of the most common contaminants in Minnesota’s groundwater, and there are unique geologic features in southeast Minnesota that make the groundwater more vulnerable to nitrate contamination.

Some public and private wells have nitrate levels that exceed the health risk limit for nitrate. Public water systems regularly test for nitrate and ensure levels meet the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency standard, while it is the responsibility of private well owners to test their wells. Human activities such as sewage disposal, livestock production, and crop fertilization can elevate the level of nitrate in groundwater.

Last November, the EPA requested Minnesota develop a plan and provide education and outreach, as well as alternative drinking water, to residents with water above the federal and state drinking water standard for nitrate – 10 milligrams per liter (mg/L).

The MDA is concerned about nitrate in groundwater. That’s why we’ve taken significant actions over the past decade, and work is ongoing in the eight southeast counties of Dodge, Fillmore, Goodhue, Houston, Mower, Olmsted, Wabasha and Winona. Many initiatives have involved members of the Minnesota Soybean Growers Association (MSGA).

Here are some examples:

The Nitrogen Fertilizer Management Plan is designed to reduce nitrate levels in areas with vulnerable groundwater. This strategy outlines an approach to assessing agricultural practices and working with the agricultural community to select, adopt and implement recommended best practices in the most vulnerable areas of the state. An important outcome of the plan, which was revised in 2014, was the MDA’s Township Testing Program.

The Township Testing Program offered 21,801 residents in the eight counties a free nitrate test for their drinking water. Of the 8,714 that submitted a sample, 12.1% (1,058 wells) were greater than 10 mg/L. The program has provided foundational scientific information to help identify areas of concern and prioritize work for state and local partners.

Another outcome of the Nitrogen Fertilizer Management Plan was the Groundwater Protection Rule. Since 2019, the MDA has implemented the rule, prohibiting fall application of commercial fertilizer on 71% of cropland (approximately 1.1 million acres) in southeast Minnesota and over 9 million acres statewide. The MDA has also convened local advisory teams and is working with farmers, including soybean growers, to adopt practices to address local groundwater problems.

The Minnesota Agricultural Water Quality Certification Program (MAWQCP) assesses whole-farm risks to water quality and invests in conservation practices that protect our water resources. On an average certified farm, there is up to a 49% reduction of nitrate loss through the adoption of conservation practices like nutrient management, cover crops, and conservation crop rotation. MAWQCP has certified over 1 million acres statewide, thanks to MSGA’s support, since the program began in 2014. There are 269 MAWQCP-certified producers operating over 191,000 acres (as of December 2023) in southeast Minnesota.

Nitrate reduction work is also happening in southeast Minnesota with the Root River Field to Stream Partnership, AgBMP Loan Program, Nutrient Management Initiative and more.

The MDA is committed to working with farmers, landowners and well owners in southeast Minnesota, in conjunction with the Minnesota Department of Health and Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, on mitigating nitrate contamination in groundwater. Our efforts rely on active participation by local farmers and crop retailers. I encourage you to get involved. To learn more about our nitrate reduction work, visit our website at www.mda.state.mn.us/nitrate.


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