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Minnesota governor highlights improving water quality as a big priority

ST. PAUL -- Gov. Mark Dayton used an annual report about Minnesota's drinking water to highlight what he says has quickly become a big priority of his second term -- improving water quality. In the coming months, Dayton said he would name a direc...


ST. PAUL -- Gov. Mark Dayton used an annual report about Minnesota’s drinking water to highlight what he says has quickly become a big priority of his second term - improving water quality.

In the coming months, Dayton said he would name a director of water quality to help him better understand ways to improve Minnesota’s waters. He continues to push a controversial plan for buffer strips between farmland and lakes and streams.

“Minnesotans have long prided ourselves on the quality and availability of our water,” Dayton said, adding that in some parts of the state, clean lakes, streams and drinking water are no longer guaranteed. “It’s not going to change unless we change it.”


The annual drinking water report released Wednesday found a small but growing number of communities with high levels of nitrate in their water sources, said Ed Ehlinger, state health commissioner. High nitrate levels can cause health problems in infants and pregnant women, but the amount in Minnesota drinking water has not reached alarming levels in half a century.

“Normally, our report generates very little interest,” Ehlinger said.

This year, however, water quality has gotten attention at the Capitol. Widespread drought, a recent report about the condition of the state’s lakes and streams and debate about Dayton’s buffer proposal have caught Minnesotans’ attention.

“People are recognizing that water quality and quantity is a health issue,” Ehlinger said. “Protecting our drinking water makes sense from an economic, environmental and public health standpoint.”

The report identified 14 communities - including Hastings and Shakopee - that have nitrate levels in their untreated water supplies that exceed health standards. Those communities, with more than 50,000 residents total, have either built expensive new treatment systems or turned to other water sources.

Another 61 community water systems statewide have elevated nitrate levels. Minnesota has 961 community water systems that have been surveyed for contaminants annually since 1995.

The study also found 600 of the 6,000 noncommunity water supplies that typically provide water to schools, lodging and businesses have elevated nitrate levels.

Nitrates enter the water supply a variety of ways, including through agricultural and residential fertilizers, manure and human waste from septic systems. High nitrate levels also can indicate the presence of other contaminants in water supplies, health officials said.


Dayton has been pushing a proposal for buffers between agricultural land and waterways, saying a 50-foot vegetative strip could vastly reduce the fertilizer, pesticides and other agricultural contaminants in lakes and streams. Current law requires buffers of 16 feet or more around many waters on agricultural land, but enforcement is inconsistent and many waters are exempt.

Farmers and their allies have criticized Dayton’s buffer idea, saying it could lead to large economic losses when productive farmland is turned over to a vegetative buffer. Much of the debate has centered on the effectiveness of buffers, how large the buffers need to be and how farmers should be compensated for losses.

State Rep. Paul Torkelson, R-Hanska, a farmer, said he has been working to find a buffer compromise since Dayton proposed the idea. He hopes lawmakers still can approve something in the final days of the legislative session, but it won’t be as extensive as Dayton’s proposal.

“I’m looking at this as an opportunity for the Legislature and agriculture to do something positive,” he said.

Torkelson added that he was surprised Dayton has kept water quality in the spotlight this late in the session. He noted that farmers have become much more precise on how they use fertilizers and pesticides.

“I think it is a bit of a stretch to tie the nitrate (drinking water) report and buffers,” Torkelson said. “On the other hand, the nitrate issue is one we are going to have to deal with.”

A separate, recent study of lakes and streams by the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency found large swaths of watersheds - predominantly in the southern half of the state - that would be hard pressed to support aquatic life or recreation.

Those lakes and streams were degraded by high levels of nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment by runoff from farms and urban lands, the report said.


Dayton said the amount of pollutants in Minnesota’s streams, lakes and drinking water convinced him it was time to act. He added that Minnesota’s waters impact the entire Mississippi River and flow into the Gulf of Mexico.

“This is going to be a concerted and extended effort over a number of years,” Dayton said. “It seems to me it’s imperative that we lead the way.”

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