Since the 1990s, animal feedlots and crop production in Minnesota have become bigger and more industrialized. At the same time, monoculture crop production of nitrate-intensive crops like corn and soybeans has grown. This industrial-scale mode of production has pushed out smaller, more sustainably run farms who can’t compete. It has also caused the widespread contamination of drinking water by nitrate, pesticides, and other agricultural pollutants. This contamination is particularly bad in geologically sensitive areas where erodible bedrock or sandy soils allow nutrients and chemicals to rapidly infiltrate into groundwater. Where water moves quickly from the surface into underground aquifers, drinking water is at risk.
Southeastern Minnesota is home to such vulnerable geology, known as “karst.” This region of Minnesota is vulnerable to groundwater contamination and has a lot of Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs) as well as monoculture crop production. It is also home to some of Minnesota’s best and most beloved trout streams. The impacts of water pollution from industrial agriculture in the karst region are widespread, persistent, and pose a major risk to human health and aquatic life. While the impacts to people can be harder to see, the consequences for aquatic life are startling. One of the most visible signs of this pollution are fish kill events, where thousands of fish die along a small stretch of a stream or river in a single day. A central cause of fish kills in the karst region is nutrient pollution pesticides, and fungicides from agricultural land use practices. In Winona County alone, three major fish kills – where thousands of fish died – happened between 2015 and 2022.
CONDITIONS HAVE REACHED CRISIS-LEVEL IN SOME AREAS OF SOUTHEAST MINNESOTA
Nitrate contamination of drinking water in this region is well documented, and private wells and public water supplies routinely exceed the federal drinking water standard of 10mg/L, which is the human health limit established by the Environmental Protection Agency. In 2017, 19% of private wells tested in Winona County were at or above 10mg/L of nitrate. In some townships, such as Fremont Township, over half of the private wells tested in the same time period were above 10mg/L. The contamination has affected public water supplies too. Lewiston Township has already had to dig a deeper well because of nitrate contamination, and now Utica Township has to dig a deeper well also, for an estimated cost to taxpayers of over $2 million. It’s important to keep in mind that while the federal standard of 10mg/L was set in 1962 to prevent methemoglobinemia (also called “blue baby syndrome”), which is a serious health risk for infants and pregnant women, research has shown an increased risk for colorectal cancer and adverse birth outcomes from exposure to nitrate levels as low as 3-5mg/L.
This landscape is very fragile. It’s very wet. It can be very bountiful, but it needs to be taken care of.
We need to have that backbone in state agencies to start talking very straight talk about what’s going on with polluted drinking water - in particular, private wells because they have no protections. We can be trout fisherman. We can be farmers. But, when it comes down to it, the water you drink is the most important water.
Paul Wotzka, Hydrologist, a founder of Minnesota Well Owners Organization
THE GOVERNMENT RESPONSE HAS BEEN INADEQUATE
Despite this widespread public health crisis, industrialized agriculture continues to grow in the sensitive karst region. In fact, the eight southeastern counties that make up the majority of the karst region currently support approximately 500,000 dairy cow and cattle animal units, and 260,000 swine animal units, with continued growth and consolidation on the horizon. Such large-scale operations are particularly troubling given that one of the most effective controls on nitrate levels is reasonable animal unit caps set by counties and townships at the local level. But instead of imposing restrictions that balance the need for safe drinking water with agricultural interests, we are instead seeing animal unit caps attacked and/or counties seeking to increase them. For example, in Winona County, Daley Farm is seeking a variance to increase its feedlot to 6,000 animal units, or four times the Winona County’s current 1,500 animal unit cap. And Fillmore County unanimously voted earlier in 2023 to increase its animal unit cap from 2,000 to 4,000 animal units.
THERE ARE SOLUTIONS AT OUR FINGERTIPS
To address the widespread contamination of surface water and groundwater in the Minnesota karst region, MCEA seeks broad regulatory changes to strengthen Minnesota’s regulation of industrial agriculture. We seek to limit the growth of CAFOs in Minnesota’s karst region and tighten existing regulations for animal feeding operations and industrial row-crop agriculture. We believe we can both protect clean drinking water and support local farming at reasonable levels.
The two maps above were produced by the Environmental Work Group*. Click here to explore their interactive map on nitrate pollution in Minnesota private drinking water wells.
Take action: Join the call for action
Raise your voice alongside hundreds of Minnesotans demanding action on the drinking water crisis in the karst region.
Sign our petition.
MCEA and 10 partner organizations file a petition with the EPA to use its emergency authority under the Safe Drinking Water Act to address the crisis of nitrate contamination of drinking water in the Minnesota karst region
MCEA successfully advocates for a bill to create an interagency protocol for fish kills with a coalition of orgs that include Minnesota Trout Unlimited, Minnesota Well Owners’ Organization, and Land Stewardship Project
MCEA and partner organizations file a comment with the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency outlining why the proposed CAFO General Permit is not adequately protective of water resources
MCEA intervenes in a lawsuit to defend Winona County’s decision to limit the growth of feedlot operations through a 2,000 animal unit cap and NOT grant a variance to Daley Farms for a proposed expansion
MCEA submits comments to the Minnesota Department of Agriculture on why the Groundwater Protection Rule is not adequately protective of private well owners
*The graphics above were provided by the Environmental Working Group (EWG). EWG is a nonprofit, non-partisan organization that empowers people to live healthier lives in a healthier environment. Through research, advocacy and unique education tools, EWG drives consumer choice and civic action.