LEWISTON, Minn. — A work plan submitted by Minnesota state agencies to address nitrate pollution in southeastern Minnesota does not address the root cause of the problem and instead relies on pre-existing programs that have shown little evidence of success thus far, said members of the Land Stewardship Project (LSP).
“We know that we can have successful, multi-generational farms in southeastern Minnesota without compromising our water quality. My dairy farm is proof of that,” said Bonnie Haugen, a Canton, Minn., dairy farmer. “Ultimately, this comes down to what kind of farming systems are we, as a state, going to support? We need to lift up farming systems that build our soils, protect our water and use manure as a source of fertility, rather than a waste product to be disposed of.”
On January 12, three state agencies — the Department of Agriculture (MDA), the Department of Health (MDH) and the Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) — submitted a work plan for addressing nitrate contamination in southeastern Minnesota. This plan is the result of a petition filed in 2023 with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency calling for public action on the issue. The petition was signed by LSP and 10 other community organizations.
In their plan, the state agencies divided their response into three phases. Phases 1 and 2 will be primarily led by the MDH, while Phase 3 is jointly spearheaded by the MDA and the MPCA. Phases 1 and 2 focus on widespread well-testing throughout the region and a public health response defined mainly by supplying alternative drinking water supplies to affected residents. While LSP had hoped for a more expedited timeline in this response, the organization believes that this part of the work plan is sufficient to address the immediate public health concerns for southeastern Minnesota, said LSP organizer Martin Moore. However, he added that Phase 3 is lacking in its response to addressing the root causes of nitrate contamination in the long term.
“This work plan shows that we can’t rely on state agencies alone to solve our nitrate contamination problem,” said Moore. “In Phase 3, the MDA doubled down on pre-existing programs such as the Nitrogen Fertilizer Management Plan and the Groundwater Protection Rule, both of which have shown little evidence they are meaningfully reducing nitrates in our groundwater. Even with these programs in place, southeastern Minnesota is still the only region in the state where nitrate levels are on the rise. We need more.”
Moore expressed disappointment in the agencies’ decision to stall immediate action by assembling a task force of citizens and local leaders to develop a “shared understanding” of the problems and the facts of the nitrate issue and then provide recommendations by June 2025.
“LSP appreciates the inclusion of local stakeholders in this process,” he said. “However, LSP’s members and other residents in southeastern Minnesota already have a shared understanding of this issue and how to fix it: farmers utilizing practices that build soil health in the long term hold the key to the solution.”
Although the Phase 3 plan is lacking, LSP’s members and staff will fight to make sure its farmer-members are given a voice when it comes to participating in and providing input to the nitrate task force in coming months, said Moore.
“Rural residents and the environment are suffering under the weight of large commercial operations and the overapplication of manure to the land,” said Dodge County farmer Sonja Trom Eayrs. “We cannot allow a few special interests who want to continue business as usual to dominate the discussion.”
The Land Stewardship Project (LSP) is a private, nonprofit, membership-based organization founded in 1982 to foster an ethic of stewardship for farmland, to promote sustainable agriculture, and to develop healthy communities. LSP has offices in the Minnesota communities of Lewiston, Montevideo and South Minneapolis.