Nitrogen Fertilizer Rule (Rule) frequently asked questions will continue to be updated throughout the rulemaking process.
The draft Nitrogen Fertilizer Rule is based on the Minnesota Nitrogen Fertilizer Management Plan (NFMP). The NFMP outlines the state strategy for preventing contamination and responding to elevated nitrate from fertilizer in groundwater. The Rule sets out the procedures by which the Minnesota Department of Agriculture may regulate the use of nitrogen fertilizer in vulnerable groundwater areas to prevent contamination from occurring and to respond to areas that have high nitrate concentrations.
Nitrate-nitrogen (nitrate) is one of the most common contaminants in Minnesota's groundwater. The majority of Minnesota households have access to safe drinking water supplies. However, in some areas vulnerable to groundwater contamination public and private wells may have high nitrate levels. Too much nitrate in drinking water can pose serious health concerns for humans. See the Minnesota Department of Health for more information.
There is an extensive body of research documenting that nitrate from nitrogen fertilizer can leach below the root zone and migrate to groundwater. While contributions from soil organic matter, manure applications and legume crops do occur, fertilizer inputs are recognized as the most important in terms of management options. View Fertilizer as Source of Nitrate in Groundwater for more information and a listing of relevant research articles and reports.
The Minnesota Department of Agriculture uses nitrate data from public and private drinking wells. Groundwater quality is monitored in order to evaluate pollution frequency and concentration trends and to protect groundwater and public and private drinking water wells from elevated nitrate concentrations. For more information see the MDA's Township Testing Program and Drinking Water Protection.
The purpose of the Rule is to minimize potential sources of nitrate pollution in the state’s groundwater and to protect our drinking water. The Rule is one tool, for specific situations, that is part of a larger strategy to reduce nitrate from fertilizer in groundwater.
The authority of the Rule comes from the Minnesota Groundwater Protection Act, Minnesota Statute 103H.
The Minnesota Department of Agriculture has the authority to issue administrative, civil, and criminal penalties against those who violate the Rule under Minnesota Statute 18D.
The Minnesota Department of Agriculture (MDA) is currently considering public comments received during the summer of 2017 public comment period and is revising the draft Nitrogen Fertilizer Rule. The proposed Rule will be published for public review and comment. If more than 25 people request a hearing, a hearing will be held before an administrative law judge. Based on the judges' comments the MDA may need to revise the Rule or redo portions of the Rule. The MDA anticipates adoption of the Rule in the end of 2018.
There are two parts to the rule. Each part contains separate provisions. Depending on where you farm, you may be subject to one part of the rule, both parts, or neither part.
Part 1: You are subject to Part 1 of the rule if you farm in a vulnerable groundwater area. This means you cannot apply nitrogen fertilizer in the fall and on frozen soils.
Part 2: You are subject to Part 2 of the rule if your township or Drinking Water Supply Management Area (DWSMA) has groundwater with nitrate concentrations that are higher than health risk limits. These areas will be designated a mitigation level 1, 2, 3 or 4.
See the answer to Question 11 for more detailed information.
Mitigation is the action of reducing the severity of a problem. In addressing the problem of nitrate contamination, mitigation levels will be based on nitrate data collected from a groundwater monitoring network.
Mitigation Levels 1 and 2:
The initial designation of mitigation levels is based on nitrate concentrations that are near to or exceed the health risk limits of 10 milligrams per liter. Nitrate data from public and private wells will be used to prioritize areas of greatest concern and to determine if mitigation is necessary. All areas identified with elevated nitrate contamination will begin in a mitigation level 1 or 2.
Level 1 Mitigation designations may be reevaluated every ten years. Level 2 Mitigation designations will be reevaluated after no fewer than three growing seasons, using nitrate concentration data collected from private and public wells and surveying the effectiveness of nitrogen fertilizer best management practices (BMPs). If nitrogen fertilizer BMPs are being used on 80% of cropland in the designated area (township or drinking water supply management area), it is unlikely the area will move up to a regulatory mitigation level.
Mitigation Levels 3 and 4 (regulatory):
If nitrogen fertilizer BMPs are not being used and nitrate groundwater levels are over the health risk limits, the area may move to a regulatory mitigation level (3 or 4) by order of the Commissioner of Agriculture.
Please see the Mitigation Level Criteria for more information.
A vulnerable groundwater area is land where nitrate can move easily through soil and into groundwater. The criteria used to determine vulnerability includes the saturated hydraulic conductivity of a soil (Ksat≥ 10 micrometers/second, roughly 1.42 inches/hour), or karst or bedrock at or near the surface. The saturated hydraulic conductivity of the soil profile was selected because it is a better indicator of groundwater infiltration than soil texture alone. Saturated hydraulic conductivity data come from the Natural Resources Conservation Service. The Department of Natural Resources Pollution Sensitivity of Near-Surface Materials Report was used to identify the locations of karst and near surface bedrock.
The application of nitrogen fertilizer in the fall and on frozen soils will be restricted in areas with vulnerable groundwater. An area with vulnerable groundwater is an area where nitrate can move easily through soil and into groundwater. The criteria used to determine vulnerability includes the saturated hydraulic conductivity of a soil (Ksat≥ 10 micrometers/second, roughly 1.42 inches/hour), near-surface bedrock and karst geology. Vulnerable groundwater areas are considered the most vulnerable to pollution. View a more detailed and interactive map to see if your farm is in a vulnerable groundwater area.
Vulnerable groundwater areas will be determined section by section. In areas where more than 50% of the section has vulnerable groundwater, fall and frozen soil application will not be allowed in the entire section. If 50% or less of the section has vulnerable groundwater, fall and frozen soil application is restricted on fields with karst or near-surface bedrock or where the predominant soil type is vulnerable.
Exceptions to the restriction.
Fall application of nitrogen fertilizer will be allowed in vulnerable groundwater areas to:
The Minnesota Department of Agriculture has the authority to regulate nitrogen fertilizer. The Rule calls for following the nitrogen BMPs. One of the BMPs is to properly credit all nitrogen sources, including manure, when determining the nitrogen fertilizer rate. The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency has the authority to regulate manure.
If the nitrogen fertilizer best management practices (BMPs) are implemented on more than 80% of the cropland in your area, regulations will not be required. If 80% or less of cropland in a township or drinking water supply management area (DWSMA) is not following the BMPs, then all of the township or DWSMA can move to a regulatory level.
In cropland areas with high nitrate concentrations in the groundwater, the Minnesota Department of Agriculture (MDA) strongly encourages farmers to consider using Alternative Management Tools or AMTs. In the Rule, Alternative Management Tools are defined as “specific practices and solutions approved by the commissioner to address groundwater nitrate problems.” Examples of AMTs include, but are not limited to, cover crops, annual crops, and alfalfa. The MDA will maintain a published list of approved AMTs. This list will be updated on an annual basis. Under the Nitrogen Fertilizer Rule, land with AMTs in place will be considered BMP compliant in the BMP survey.
Non-compliance with the Nitrogen Fertilizer Rule will generally first be addressed by providing compliance assistance to the landowner. Except for cases that involve human endangerment, the general progression of penalties involves 1) education, 2) compliance assistance, and 3) enforcement.
The Minnesota Department of Agriculture (MDA) has the general authority to issue administrative, civil, and criminal penalties for violations of its rules through Minnesota Statutes 18D. Penalty actions are based on the severity of the violation and the facts of the case. The MDA takes a progressive enforcement approach, meaning that repeat violations will be met with stronger penalties than first violations.
Penalties would be issued only to those in violation of the fall/winter nitrogen fertilizer application restriction and to those who violate a Commissioner’s order for mitigation levels 3 and 4. If a regulated party disagrees with a proposed penalty, the party will have the opportunity to challenge it.
The BMPs can be found using the links below.
Fertilizer Technical Unit Supervisor
Pesticide & Fertilizer Management Division