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The state of Minnesota said it will spend the coming months providing clean drinking water to residents in southeastern Minnesota whose wells are contaminated with farm pollution.

In a work plan released this month, state regulators gave the EPA a timeline for providing the water treatment systems, but said existing programs will eventually reduce the nitrate pollution that's fouling the wells.

Margaret Wagner, a division manager with the Department of Agriculture, said it will take time to see results of programs designed to change farming practices to reduce fertilizer runoff.

"A lot of the work we are able to do really started when the Clean Water Legacy Amendment passed in 2010," Wagner said. "While plans were developed many years ago, we had very little funding and staff. We're fully implementing the plans now."

On Nov. 3, the EPA ordered the state to take several steps to address nitrate contamination in southeast Minnesota, including provide safe water immediately to those with contaminated private wells and come up with a plan to reduce the pollution. The action was short of what community groups had requested, which was to declare a public health emergency, but they still welcomed the federal pressure.

The state's plan to reduce nitrate pollution relies on programs that have been around for 10, 20 and even 30 years without working, said state Rep. Rick Hansen, DFL-South St. Paul, the leader of the House Environmental Committee.

"It's embarrassing," Hansen said. "I'd encourage the EPA to reject it. If we have a public health crisis the answer is not 'Hey, let's grab some donuts and coffee and lobbyists and spend two years talking about it again.'"

Nitrate is a chemical that is dangerous in high quantities, and the porous geography of southeastern Minnesota makes wells particularly susceptible to it. About 90% of the nitrate in southeastern Minnesota's water comes from farming fertilizers spread on croplands, a state study found in 2013.

Despite spending hundreds of millions of dollars over decades on studies, stakeholder meetings, incentives and educational and voluntary programs, the state has made no measurable progress in reducing nitrate pollution.

In the plan, the Department of Agriculture and Minnesota Pollution Control Agency told the EPA that they will create a new task force to come up with recommendations by June 2025 to reduce nitrate pollution in the area.

In the meantime, the agencies said they will continue to support and study best management practices, provide educational programs and encourage farmers to voluntarily adopt practices that use less fertilizer such as planting cover crops.

The agencies are already in the process of revising the state's overarching nutrient reduction strategy, they wrote.

Nitrate can remain in aquifers for decades, so the actions taken now may not show immediate results, Wagner said. The best measure of success is in how many acres are being put into conservation programs, getting clean water certified and planting cover crops, she said.

She pointed to the Groundwater Protection Rule, created in 2019, as relatively new regulatory action. The rule bans farmers from using nitrogen fertilizer in sensitive areas in the fall, though the department has no information on whether it's working.

The agency is reviewing the state's work plan, an EPA spokeswoman said.

The EPA letter is clear that the state needs to use all available tools to hold the sources of nitrate pollution accountable, said Carly Griffith, the water program director for the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy, the group that first asked the EPA to step in.

"This plan doesn't achieve that," she said.

In the plan, the agencies told the EPA that it will take more than a year to find and reach all of the estimated 9,218 private well owners that could be drinking unsafe water. The Health Department said it could get a limited number of reverse osmosis systems, which cost several thousand dollars, to households that are most at risk, those with babies and pregnant women.