Groundwater is a critical resource for Minnesota - it feeds our streams, fills our lakes and is a (mostly) clean and reliable source of drinking water for about 75% of the population. Many areas have localized problems, some with natural contaminants like arsenic, man-made toxics from unsound disposal of industrial wastes and many areas with nitrate contamination at levels that are of concern. Here's a link to a video from an LWV UMRR meeting last October where Chris Parthun from the Minnesota Department of Health describes the problems with nitrate contamination in our water.
In 1989, the Minnesota Legislature passed a law aimed at increasing protection of Minnesota's groundwater resources. Click here to watch a video detailing Minnesota's 1989 Groundwater Protection Act. This act included a set of tiered actions to be taken to address everyday sources of groundwater contamination not addressed by programs like Superfund or the Leaking Underground Storage Tank program. This Act also established a groundwater protection goal of preventing degradation and reducing pollution where is has already occured.
One area where groundwater protection is particularly thorny is in agricultural areas, where nitrate contamination is affecting both public and private wells, and the levels are rising. As laid out in the Groundwater Protection Act, the Minnesota Department of Agriculture is responsible for developing and administering programs and laws to address this. This has not been an easy course, and the twists and turns abound. This link leads to a blog post on the Loon Commons Blog by Matt Doll of the Minnesota Environmental Partnership. Here, Matt describes the rule that the Minnesota Department of Agriculture proposed to address the growing problem of nitrate in groundwater.
The Minnesota Legislature introduced bills to stop this rule. LWV UMRR Chair Gretchen Sabel testified in both the House and Senate, on behalf of LWV Minnesota, in opposition to these bills. This link will take you to a copy of her testimony in the House. In the end, the bills were passed and Governor Dayton vetoed it. The Ag Committees in both houses have taken steps to use an administrative procedure to further slow the rule. Here's another blog post from Matt Doll on the topic.
The saga continues... the Minnesota Department of Agriculture is now in the process of finalizing the rule. Public comment will be taken until August 15 - read about it here. And comment! Clean water is important for all of us in the Upper Mississippi - Minnesota is the headwaters state, and this rule is just one part of the solution.
The League of Women Voters has worked on water issues for nearly as long as there has been a League of Women Voters. In “Impact on Issues 2016-2018 - Natural Resources”, this rich history is documented in detail. The role of League leaders in supporting thoughtful approaches to protecting water resources across the country is balanced by the role that water issues have played in building League membership and influence. As stated in “Impact”, “Water issues, from groundwater protection to agricultural runoff to the Safe Drinking Water Act, have energized League leaders, especially at the local level, for decades.”
How many Leagues are involved in work on water issues? Which water resources are the target of these efforts? What has been learned, and what can be shared to help others succeed? To learn the answers to these questions, LWV Upper Mississippi River Region sought information through a survey, sent to all Leagues in the United States. A detailed summary of the survey results is in this .pdf .
Based on the survey, Leagues in 26 states are active in water issues. The water resources that are being addressed include oceans, lakes, rivers, streams and groundwater. Ocean pollution is a concern in Oregon and Washington, and California Leagues work to prevent degradation of estuaries where freshwater streams meet the saltwater. LWV Benecia, near San Francisco, is very active in working on water use and conservation - click here for more detail. Sea level rise is a concern in Florida, where Leagues across the state work to support efforts to prepare for the impacts of rising coastal water levels.
The Great Lakes were mentioned by six Leagues. Key issues here are nutrient pollution, and cleanup of toxic contamination. Funding for the Great Lakes Initiative, a US EPA program, is seen as critical for ensuring that clean ups continue. For example, LWV Glen Ellyn (IL) reported that in March 2017 they joined with other organizations at U.S. Rep. Peter Roskam's office to protest major cuts in the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative (GLRI). In April 2017, three LWV Glen Ellyn members met with Rep. Roskam's staffer. Among items discussed were proposed cuts to environmental protections; asked that Rep. Roskam to protect our water in the Great Lakes Basin by keeping full funding for the GLRI. This advocacy lead to full funding for the GLI in 2018. One League, LWV of Steuben County (New York) sits in both the Great Lakes and Chesapeake Bay watersheds, and reports working on water issues on both sides of the continental divide.
Focusing specifically on Lake Michigan, the LWV Lake Michigan Region ILO brings together 45 Leagues from the four states that border the Lake. This ILO has taken on a major project of stormwater education in their watershed, and is now working on developing watershed factsheets for the rivers and streams that discharge to Lake Michigan. Ohio Leagues are working to reduce nutrients, and the algae that results, in Lake Erie and the public water sources that flow into it.
Seven Leagues reported that they focus their efforts on the Upper Mississippi. All of these Leagues are members of the LWV Upper Mississippi River Region ILO. In this ILO, individual Leagues work on local water issues and the ILO brings additional emphasis to issues like the impacts of the US Farm Bill. LWV Galena (Illinois) has been leading local efforts in northwestern Illinois to monitor water resources and educate decision makers on the need for protection. Leaders in this League were instrumental in the formation of the LWV Upper Mississippi River Region in 2015, building this tool as way that Leagues in the basin can join their voices to advocate for river protection.
Water scarcity was reported as a concern by western US Leagues in Arizona, California, Washington, Oregon, Nevada, Utah, Montana and Kansas. LWV Grand County (Utah) outlined work they’ve done, including holding a Water Conservation Open House, doing a presentation on water source protection, water scarcity, and groundwater protection - more detail can be found - click here. Some California Leagues are looking at water reuse as a way to stretch water supplies. LWV Oregon is involved w/the regional Columbia River Treaty w/Canada. They report that they have published two studies on water quality/quantity (http://lwvor.org/study-archives/lwvorstudyarchivelibrary/#water ) culminating in new positions on which to advocate at the state and local level. Water scarcity is an issue not only in the west and southwest United States but in water-rich places like Florida and Massachusetts, where aquifer protection is a major concern for drinking water protection.
At the LWV Water Advocacy Workshop on June 27, seven Leagues will make presentations on their water work. This document will be updated at that time, to include more detail on the work that’s being done by Leagues to protect and enhance our water resources. We will post videos from this session on this blog in early July, so check back!
The people of Wisconsin are concerned about what’s happening to their water. This concern was shown Monday night in Stevens Point, where more than 90 people packed the Pinery Room at the Portage County Library to hear Dr. George Kraft talk about the science and policy debate around high capacity wells – read more about this event here. Dr. Kraft’s presentation was captured in an informal video on Facebook live, visit the LWV UMRR Facebook page and look under”Videos”.
Dr. Kraft is Professor Emeritus from the University of Wisconsin Stevens Point. His work has focused on groundwater resource sustainability, particularly about profitable agriculture and water impacts, and is involved in work to modernize Wisconsin’s groundwater pumping management policy and laws. Wisconsin’s Central Sands region is where Dr. Kraft has spent much of his career, and was the focus of his remarks Monday night.
In his talk, Dr. Kraft first talked about groundwater hydrology; explaining the connection between ground- and surface waters. When groundwater levels drop, whether from lack of recharge in dry times or from pumping from wells, surface water resources are also affected. (If the water table drops eight feet, for example, spring-fed streams that intersect the water table will also go down to the same elevation as the water table. The actual amount of drop in surface water levels depends on their normal water level elevation.) Shallower streams like minor tributaries are often dried up, and deeper water bodies will drop in water level. When the amount of cold groundwater entering a stream diminishes, the water warms. Warmer streams longer support trout and other cold-water species, meaning that groundwater depletion leads to ecological change as well.
Dr. Kraft talked about the continued expansion of farm irrigation in Wisconsin’s Central Sands. The number of high-capacity irrigation wells in this area has grown significantly, and resultant drops in the water table level have been recorded.
What is the effect of this? Dr. Kraft showed pictures of lakes and streams where water levels have dropped, which is especially dramatic in dry years. This isn’t just happening in Wisconsin – Minnesota has similar geologic terrains and similar problems. Dr. Kraft talked about the approach that the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources is taking in the Straight River Groundwater Management Area- read about that here. A second project in Minnesota relating to water use and depletion was reported on in this blog earlier – the Little Rock Creek study.
So, will the irrigation wells run out of water, too? Dr. Kraft said that there’s probably plenty of water for irrigation wells for years to come. Central Wisconsin is a water-rich area, receiving more than 30 inches of rain a year. Groundwater is recharged by the rain, and the aquifers here are deep. The groundwater resource will sustain heavy pumping for the foreseeable future, but the impacts on surface water will continue. It is up to the people of Wisconsin to balance theses competing values.
While Dr. Kraft’s talk focused on water quantity, water quality is also an issue in central Wisconsin. Both are addressed by the Center for Watershed Science and Management at the University of Wisconsin Stevens Point. Dr. Paul McGinley is the Director of this Center, Dr. Kraft is an emeritus member and Kevin Masarik, a doctoral student at UW Madison, is also part of the team. Another hydrologist will soon be hired to round out the team. Support for the Center’s staff comes primarily from UW Extension, so outreach to citizens, lake associations and others is a major part of their work.
Nitrate contamination is a real problem in Wisconsin, affecting more than 25% of all private wells. Here’s a video presentation where Kevin Masarik explains what nitrate is and explores the effects of nitrate on the environment, drinking water and groundwater. In this video, Masarik discusses data found in Wisconsin’s Well Water Viewer, which can be found at this link.
Wisconsin’s groundwater has been the subject of other posts on this blog. See “Protecting Wisconsin Well Owners and Providing Safe Water” at https://www.lwvumrr.org/blog/protecting-wisconsin-well-owners-and-providing-safe-water and “When it Hits the Fan – Groundwater Quality and Public Health” at https://www.lwvumrr.org/blog/when-it-hits-the-fan-groundwater-quality-and-public-health .
On Thursday, March 8, League of Women Voters of Brainerd (Minnesota) hosted Anna Bosch of the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency in a discussion of water quality on the Upper Mississippi. (The Mississippi River headwaters are in northern Minnesota and the river travels nearly a third of its length inside Minnesota. When Minnesotans talk about the “Upper Mississippi”, they mean the stretch of the river that flows from the Headwaters to just north of the Twin Cities.) Anna talked about work the MPCA is doing to identify water quality problems and threats in the Upper Mississippi, and to work with local governments to protect and improve water quality. Click here for the document that Anna used as the basis for her talk.
The first 350 miles of the river flow through forests and wetlands. Only 4% of the land is developed in this part of the basin, and 13% is in crop and pasture. Water quality in this area is very good, and the focus of the efforts here are on protecting water quality. Not only is there significant protection to the river offered by the surrounding forests but the river is spring-fed; these groundwater contributions sustain both flow and water quality in the river.
In a previous blog post, we discussed problems with groundwater depletion, stream warming and stream flow loss as well as increasing levels of nitrate in both surface and groundwater. When Anna spoke, she pointed out similar issues in the Crow Wing River Watershed. Here, lands that had been in tree plantations are being cleared and replaced by crops, primarily irrigated potatoes. This conversion removes protection for the river. Cultivating the land can increase sedimentation; fertilizers used on the crops can increase nitrate in surface and groundwater, and irrigation lowers groundwater levels which impacts the flow of groundwater into the river. This combination of changes has significant impacts on the river, and those downstream who rely on it for drinking water. According to MPCA, “for every 10% decrease in forest cover … the cost of water treatment for downstream communities increases by 20%.”
The Upper Upper Mississippi is a river with excellent water quality in the river and most of the lakes in its watershed. It flows through the land of cabins and resorts; recreational fishing and water recreation in winter and summer is a major industry. Land uses here are changing which will result in changes in this river. Numerous challenges face Minnesotans as they balance growth and development with recreational uses and drinking water needs.
The Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade, and Consumer Protection estimates that roughly one in five private wells in rural areas of Wisconsin have levels of agricultural pollution that make the water unsafe to drink. On October 31, Wisconsin bills AB 226 & SB 168 was passed by the Wisconsin Senate and sent to Governor Walker for signature. If signed, this bill will make it easier for more households to cover the costs of their contaminated wells or failing septic systems by allowing local governments to provide low cost or no-cost loans to replace these wells and systems. It also increases the maximum grant amount under the state’s Well Compensation Grant program to $12,000. The full text of this bill can be read at this link. The Wisconsin Conservation Voters have been following and supporting this bill.
This bill allows a local government to pay to remediate water contamination problems and then charge the homeowner through special assessments on property taxes.... and no cost is imposed on the party responsible for the contamination in the first place. When asked for comment, Tressie Kamp of Midwest Environmental Advocates says (in an email dated November 6) that “this bill is only a first step toward holding various levels of government accountable for unacceptable numbers of contaminated private wells throughout our state. We specifically agree that the cap on funding does not cover the comprehensive costs to homeowners, especially those who may need to replace their well more than once. We also agree that local government loans, rather than payment from a responsible party, is an incomplete solution. But allowing local governments to make loans to bridge the gap as residents navigate the DNR well compensation program may help people who have immediate costs for getting clean water.”
For more information on the contamination of Wisconsin wells, read our blog post recounting the talk by Mark Borchart, DIrector of the Laboratory for Infectious Disease and the Environment, US Geologic Survey at this link: In his talk, Borchart discusses groundwater contamination in Wisconsin’s agricultural areas. The Wisconsin DNR has information on manure contamination identification on their website here, and is in the process of developing rules to address agricultural contamination of wells finished in the Silurian bedrock areas of Wisconsin. There are other areas of significant contamination, such as in the Brice Prairie area near La Crosse. Given this, should be scope of DNR’s rulemaking be broader?
This two-day "Celebrate the Headwaters" event (described here) began on Sunday, October 1, with us taking the last cruise of the season with Coborn's Lake Itasca tours. We visited and talked about water issues with LWV member and the public on the cruise, then met at the Headwaters for a group photo. On Monday, we held our Board meeting in the morning and at noon were joined by speakers from the Minnesota Department of Health and the nonprofit "Toxic Taters" to talk about nitrate in drinking water. You can watch the education part of the program here. - we recorded it and live-streamed through Facebook Live.
Katie DeSchane was on hand to talk about the work that Toxic Taters is doing in the Park Rapids area. Park Rapids, MN, is the city closest to the Headwaters. Changes in land use, where former tree plantations are being cut and repurposed for irrigated potato farming, is a growing concern. Kathie's group works to raise public awareness of the issue and to help people take action to protect their water supplies. Here are some links: Minnesota Department of Health Source Water Protection; Toxic Taters, and Friends of the Mississippi Headwaters. This last group had a table at our meeting with information on their work on pipelines - read about it in this blog post on the LWV UMRR website.
Mark Borchardt is the DIrector of the Laboratory for Infectious Disease and the Environment, USGS. He has been studying the microbes that contaminate Wisconsin's groundwater, and the impact they have on the health of the people of Wisconsin. He told us that it is important to understand that poop is very political. The two big sources of fecal contamination in water are cows and people, and fecal organisms are found in water throughout Wisconsin. Is this a health risk or a non-issue?
The second marks below can be used to navigate to specific elements of Mark's talk in this summary:
7:30 The Laboratory conducted a study to determine how many people are getting sick from drinking non-chlorinated municipal water. This was the WAHTER study, back in 2007-8. ( Click here for more information. ). They correlated the presence of pathogens in water to the incidence of acute gastrointestinal disease. The incidence of disease far surpasses the ‘allowable’ level of disease due to water borne illness that has been set by US EPA. People who drink water from non-disinfected public water supplies or private wells are much more susceptible to water-borne disease than people whose water is disinfected.
21:00 Based on this study, Wisconsin passed a law requiring all water supplies be disinfected. However, after political change in state government, a law was passed that prohibits DNR from requiring disinfection.
25:00 The septic system at a restaurant in Door County was causing illness. It was a new system; how could this be happening? The answer was that there was a broken seal in the tank that was causing part of the problem, but the other part of the problem was that the bedrock in the area is fractured dolomite which quickly spreads contamination over great distances. Mark's talk tracks the movement of contaminants through the groundwater to neighboring residential wells.
29:40 Kewaunee County still has “brown water events” in the spring and fall that are clearly linked with intestinal disease. Genetic testing has traced the fecal organisms back to both humans and cattle, and this area has a very large number of Combined Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs). The cattle-source organisms probably spike when manure is being applied, but the human-source organisms are present year round due to the widespread use of septic systems in the area. ( Click here for more information. In this article, one participant asked whether dispensing less liquid manure would reduce well contamination. “You don’t need a scientist for that one,” Borchardt answered. “If you remove the fecal source, you remove the contamination.” )
Des Moines Water Works lawsuit summarily dismissed, closing this chapter but not solving the problem
On March 17, 2017, Judge Leonard T. Strand, US District Court of the Northern District of Iowa, issued a summary judgement in favor of the defendants in Des Moines Water Works versus Sac, Buena Vista and Calhoun Counties. The defendants in the case filed a motion requesting the case be dismissed. Judge Strand ruled in their favor.
Specifically, the ruling finds that the drainage districts represented by the three counties do not have the authority to “mandate changes in farming practices to reduce fertilizer runoff or to assess farmers for the cost of removing nitrates from waters flowing through agricultural drainage systems.” You can read the ruling at this link.
For history on this lawsuit, you can read the complaint that the Des Moines Water Works filed in 2015 here.
The January Supreme Court decision can be found here.
If you’d prefer a short summary to reading all these decisions, check out this story on WHOT. Iowa Public Radio has information on this here, and also gets photo credits for the drainage ditch pictures with this post. Click on the pictures for a link to the IPR article.
Next steps? Judge Strand suggested that this is a problem for the Legislature to decide, not the Courts. We will cover further happenings here in this blog.
In a post on this blog last November, we provided information on the lawsuit filed by the Des Moines Water Works seeking damages from three upstream Iowa drainage authorities. In a response issued on Jan 27, the Iowa Supreme Court responded to four specific questions that needed to be answered for the lawsuit to proceed.
In this response, the Supreme Court found that drainage districts have a limited, targeted role to facilitate the drainage of farmland to make it more productive. For more than a century, Iowa law has immunized drainage districts from damage and injunctive relief claims, and that still holds in this case. The court also ruled that one subdivision of state government (the DMWW) cannot sue another (the drainage districts) under protections afforded by the Iowa Constitution, and that even if they could sue, an increased need to treat nitrates drawn from river water to meet drinking water standards would not amount to a constitutional violation. This means that the drainage districts of Sac, Buena Vista and Calhoun Counties will not have to pay damages no matter the ruling in US District Court next June.
Bill Stowe, CEO of the Des Moines Water Works, says that the suit will continue, although he’s disappointed, but not surprised, by the Supreme Court response. Analysis by the Des Moines Register reports that this ruling may “take pressure off the state to do something about its flagging water quality”, according to environmentalists. The remaining law suit seeks to require drainage districts to obtain federal permits for their discharges under the Clean Water Act. The Register noted that Iowa had a record number of record number of beach advisories last year, a growing impaired waters list and many toxic blue-green algal blooms. They quote Ralph Rosenberg, director of the Iowa Environmental Council, saying, “The public can’t swim in their favorite lakes or fish in their favorite rivers,” he said. “The urgency, responsibility and accountability issues remain.
According to the Des Moines Register, both environmental and agriculture groups have pushed for the Iowa legislature to raise the state sales tax by 3/8 of 1 cent and dedicate that money to improving Iowa’s water quality and other natural resources. This approach has been successful in Minnesota, although as described here on this blog, a lot more is needed.
Update March 9, 2017: Bill to dissolve the Des Moines Water Works utility can also dissolve the lawsuit: read about it here.
University of Iowa's Dr Peter Weyer on cancer and birth defects due to elevated nitrate in drinking water
This episode of the EnvIowa podcast features Dr Peter Weyer, Interim Director of the Center for Health Effects of Environmental Contamination, discussing his recent research on nitrates in Iowa drinking water and their effects on human health. A number of studies suggest links between elevated nitrate concentrations in drinking water and other health issues, including birth defects, cancers, thyroid problems and a variety of other health concerns.
In order to protect against blue-baby syndrome, the EPA’s maximum contaminant level or MCL is set at 10 mg/liter. Since blue-baby syndrome has not been seen as a problem of late, there has been a pressure to raise the limit and allow more nitrate in drinking water. However, there is now a pushback from the public health community to look at the studies that show a definite health risk. One is the Iowa Women’s Health study of 2200 women, over twenty years, drinking water with known nitrate levels. Even with levels of 2.5 mg/liter, there was a 2 - 3 fold increase in bladder, ovarian, and thyroid cancers. When looking at birth defects, there was also a significant increase in spina bifida, limb deficiencies and cleft palate, even given the mothers consumed the water with nitrates only a few months. In all animal studies, it was shown that water with elevated nitrates was a carcinogen.
There are significant public policy implications of this work - listen to the podcast for Dr. Weyer's take on this. Blog post by LWV UMRR's Vice-chair, Mary Ann Nelson, with help from the blog editor.
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