Information about the petition to EPA's response

In response to a petition filed by the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy, on November 3, 2023, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) requested the Minnesota Department of Health, Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, and Minnesota Department of Agriculture to develop a coordinated and comprehensive work plan to reduce nitrate contamination of drinking water in eight southeast Minnesota counties.

The eight counties are Dodge, Fillmore, Goodhue, Houston, Mower, Olmsted, Wabasha, and Winona. Learn more about EPA's request and the state's response:

Nitrate in southeast Minnesota

Nitrate is one of the most common contaminants in Minnesota's groundwater. Most Minnesota households have access to safe drinking water supplies. However, in areas vulnerable to groundwater contamination, some public and private wells have nitrate levels that exceed the health risk limit for nitrate. Public water systems regularly test for nitrate and ensure levels meet the EPA standard, while it is the responsibility of private well owners to test their well. Human activities such as sewage disposal, livestock production, and crop fertilization can elevate the level of nitrate in groundwater.

In southeast Minnesota there are unique geologic features that make the groundwater more vulnerable to contaminants like nitrate. The underlying bedrock deteriorates when exposed to mildly acidic water, creating sinkholes, sinking streams, caves, springs, and other features. These features dictate the speed and direction of water moving from the surface through layers of soil and rock below. View a series of posters, animations, and videos that illustrate these unique features and the complex water movement in southeast Minnesota.

The drinking water standard for nitrate is 10 mg/L; any number above this nitrate level can negatively affect human health, specifically infants under the age of six months. Residents using private wells for drinking water should have their water tested every year. For more information visit Nitrate in Drinking Water | Minnesota Department of Health.

MDA's role

Our agency is responsible for nitrogen fertilizer use and management under the Groundwater Protection Act. To meet this need, the MDA, in cooperation with a multi-stakeholder Advisory Committee and a public review process, developed a management plan. The Minnesota Nitrogen Fertilizer Management Plan (NFMP) is the state’s blueprint for preventing or minimizing impacts of nitrogen fertilizer on groundwater.

The primary goal of the Nitrogen Fertilizer Management Plan is to involve the agricultural community in problem solving at the local level to address localized concerns about unsafe levels of nitrate in groundwater.

The MDA has a number of programs, research projects, and resources currently available in southeast Minnesota to address these concerns.

  • Township Testing Program - In a seven-year statewide effort (2013-2019) the MDA offered nitrate tests to private well owners in townships that are vulnerable to groundwater contamination. The Township Testing Schedule and Reports has information on the results.
  • Southeast Minnesota Volunteer Nitrate Monitoring Network - The volunteer network was developed in 2008 to determine trends in private wells in the region. Monitoring has continued each year, and the number of wells tested has varied between 300-500 each year.
  • Root River Field to Stream Partnership - This unique water monitoring project combines rigorous data collection, strong personal relationships, and real conservation action in southeast Minnesota.
  • Nutrient Management Initiative - On-farm field trial support is offered to farmers and crop advisers to assist in evaluating nutrient management practices on their own fields.
  • Nitrogen BMP Outreach Program - This program is specific to southeast Minnesota. Staff work with farmers, crop advisers, and project partners to install, evaluate, and compare on-farm trials. It also includes the use of in-season nitrogen management tools.
  • Groundwater Protection Rule - The rule minimizes potential sources of nitrate pollution to the state’s groundwater and protects our drinking water. The MDA has been meeting with Local Advisory Teams to develop and implement appropriate practices to address elevated nitrate in southeast Minnesota.
  • Minnesota Agricultural Water Quality Certification Program - A voluntary opportunity for farmers and agricultural landowners to take the lead in implementing conservation practices that protect our water.
  • Tools for fertilizer application - Timing applications of fertilizer and manure can be an important step in reducing the potential for losses to surface water and groundwater. The MDA has the following tools available to assist farmers: