The Brown County Board erred last month when it failed to support a new drinking water testing program led by the Minnesota Department of Agriculture. The board should reconsider its decision, which was made without giving state officials a chance to respond to questions about how the water quality data would be used.
The statewide testing program is rolling out in areas where private wells are considered at higher risk for contamination with nitrates, a pollutant that can cause a life-threatening condition called methemoglobinemia, or “blue baby” syndrome, in infants. Many of the areas are in rural Minnesota, where certain soil types combined with fertilizer use on farm fields can lead to unsafe nitrate levels in well water.
Given state estimates that fewer than 40 percent of Minnesota’s private well owners have tested their water supply in the past decade, the program is a proactive public health measure that should merit broad support. The testing is voluntary. Homeowners do not get a bill for it. The program also puts a spotlight on how important it is to regularly check what’s in your water.
Not surprisingly, it has been met positively in other counties and townships around the state, according to the Agriculture Department, which is leading the effort. Local governments generally enter into an agreement with the state to implement testing, which is why the issue came before a meeting of Brown County’s five commissioners last month.
Lending the board’s support should have been routine. Yes, families can still pay on their own for water analysis. But when so many don’t, a program such as the state’s is common sense. Regrettably, a majority of the board’s members didn’t support the measure. The move effectively blocked the program’s launch in the three Brown County townships identified as having high-risk wells.
To his credit, Brown County Commissioner Tony Berg responded last week to an editorial writer’s pointed questions about the board’s failure to support the testing. Berg, a farmer who opposed the plan, said he didn’t think the tests should be paid for by state tax dollars. He also had questions about accuracy and cost.
But the key reason, Berg said, is that many farmers believe the state will unfairly blame agriculture for any nitrate pollution they find. And then, they fear, state officials will use the data to heavily regulate fertilizer use. “There’s a lot of mistrust,” he said.
That explanation is appreciated but still frustrating. Berg and the influential special interests who cheered the decision, such as the Brown County Farm Bureau, are apparently more afraid of regulation than the contamination that might be found. That’s ludicrous, given nitrates’ potential to harm infants. Parents in the area should be up in arms.
Berg’s comment about “mistrust” is also disappointing. No one representing the state was at the County Board meeting to answer questions, resulting in misinformation and incomplete information about the testing. Conscientious leaders would have recognized that and tabled the issue to ensure that they had accurate information.
Inviting state officials back to address concerns about the data’s use and potential future regulations is the decent, responsible thing to do. It would also be a welcome step toward mending the relationships that Berg maintains are broken.