Drinking water threatened by nitrates

Published 9:11 am Thursday, May 7, 2015

By Tim Pugmire, Minnesota Public Radio News

A new report on Minnesota drinking water released Wednesday underscores the need for legislative action in the closing days of the 2015 session, Gov. Mark Dayton said.

The Minnesota Department of Health’s annual report on drinking water quality warns that nitrate contamination could affect public health.

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Eight Minnesota communities are treating their water supplies to reduce nitrate levels. Although there were no violations of federal nitrate limits last year, nitrate contamination is a growing threat, said Dr. Ed Ehlinger, commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Health.

“Nitrate in drinking water is a human health concern, particularly for infants, in whom nitrate levels if they become high can cause a potentially fatal condition called blue baby syndrome,” he said.

Named for the blue coloration of skin in babies who have high nitrate concentrations in their blood, the syndrome impairs oxygen delivery to tissues, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

Ehlinger later explained that there has been no increase in cases of blue baby syndrome, thanks to prevention measures already in place. He said farm-management practices, including the use of buffer strips near bodies of water, would help keep nitrate levels low.

One of Dayton’s priorities for the 2015 session is a 50-foot buffer requirement to help filter farm runoff. But the governor made it clear that he’s not singling out farm fields.

“These are multiple sources in terms of what’s causing them, and there are multiple approaches in terms of solutions,” he said. “It varies from one location to another.”

In the face of strong opposition from farm groups, Dayton has been talking more broadly about improving water quality and sounds willing to compromise.

“We’re certainly trying to find areas that we can agree upon and that are going to be an important, meaningful first step to come in with something,” the governor said. “Obviously the clock is ticking. But it’s very important to me to come out of this session with something that does have broad support and (is) not going to misfire.

“It’s going to start us down the road of making this situation better.”

Dayton said water quality will be a priority for the remainder of his term. He’s asking legislators to fund a new director position in his office to focus on water issues.

State Rep. Paul Torkelson, R-Hanska, was critical of the governor’s initial buffer proposal for being a one-size-fits-all approach. But Torkelson, a farmer, is now complimenting Dayton for his flexibility on the issue.

“He’s changed his tune quite dramatically since the issue was first introduced,” Torkelson said. “It’s now focused on water quality, which I believe is appropriate, and it’s focused on allowing some flexibility in not only the size of buffer but how we approach the issue.”

Torkelson said he’s hopeful an agreement on buffers and water quality can be reached before the end of the session. But he didn’t offer specifics on what he might be willing to support.