More farming across southeast MN will lead to huge increase in polluted water, study says

Categories: Agriculture

Flickr via bionicteaching

Most of the time, a boom in crop prices is a good thing for a rural area. That's what it's felt like in southeast Minnesota for most of the past decade or so, as increasing prices for grains like soybeans and corn led to record incomes for the state's farmers as recently as a few years ago.

But according to a study released last week from the University of Minnesota, it appears that the recent emphasis on growing those money-making grains may have had a severe unintended consequence -- nitrate chemicals contaminating nearby drinking water sources.

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The study, which focused on 11 counties in southeastern Minnesota, found that converting so much of those grasslands into croplands has led to a huge increase in the number of nitrogen-rich fertilizers being used by farmers. And that, in turn, could lead to a 45 percent increase in the number of nitrogen-contaminated private wells in the area over the next 20 years.

Nitrogen is necessary for farming. It makes plants grow faster, greener, and healthier. But when there's too much nitrogen in the soil, it can contaminate the water nearby, leading to nitrate levels well past the EPA's 10-parts-per-million limit. That can lead lead to health problems, from reduced oxygen flow to brain damage, especially in infants.

"There are the obvious health effects," said Keeler. "But what we were most interested in were the economic costs," Keeler says.

Those costs won't be anywhere close to cheap for homeowners. The study didn't look into what the nitrogen pollution could mean for public water sources, only private wells. But it turns out that when you add up the cost to fix all of those wells, the price can be staggering.

"So homeowners could choose to do nothing, which is what a lot of people tend to do, and there may be consequences associated with that," Keeler says. "But if you do decide to do something, you could dig a well, which could cost something like $16,000, not to mention maintenance costs. Or you could add a treatment system, which is $600 or $800. Or you can buy bottled water. And that's all money."

(Read on to page 2 to found out how it got so bad.)

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