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Minnesota Governor unveils groundwater protection measure


Following 17 public meetings that engaged over 1,500 farmers, landowners, and other Minnesotans in conversations across the state, Governor Mark Dayton and Minnesota Agriculture Commissioner Dave Frederickson last week proposed a new groundwater protection measure. The proposal would help reduce elevated nitrate levels in groundwater and ensure more Minnesota residents have clean, safe, reliable drinking water supplies.
“I am grateful to the many farmers, landowners, and others who worked with the Department of Agriculture to develop this proposal, which would greatly improve the quality of drinking water for Minnesotans,” said Governor Dayton. “Clean, safe, reliable water in our communities is everyone’s concern, and everyone’s responsibility. I urge all Minnesotans who wish to further improve or refine this proposal to engage in the public comment period beginning this spring, and attend the additional public hearings that will be scheduled this summer.”
The groundwater protection proposal would apply to vulnerable areas and areas with high nitrate levels in public drinking waters. It also would create a system of voluntary and mandatory mitigation practices in areas with high nitrate concentrations in the public water supplies.

Groundwater Protection Effort – Part One:
Fertilizer Application During the Fall Season

Where the Proposal Would Apply:

  • Vulnerable Areas – The proposed groundwater protection measure would restrict the application of fertilizer in areas with more porous soils (coarse textured soil, karst, shallow bedrock), which have the capacity to leach greater volumes of water during the fall season. These new procedures for fertilizer application would reduce the movement of nitrates through the soil into groundwater supplies.
  • Public Water Supply Areas – The proposed groundwater protection measure also would restrict the application of fertilizer during the fall in Drinking Water Supply Management Areas where the nitrate concentration exceeds 5.4 mg/L. 

Exceptions to the Fertilizer Application Requirements:

  • Crops That Require Fall Nitrogen – An exemption would exist for crops such as winter grains, grass seed, and cover crops that require fall nitrogen.
  • Areas with Low Leaching Potential – An exemption would exist for areas with low leaching potential based on precipitation and evapotranspiration rates and a short spring planting season.
  • Areas with No Row Crops – An exemption would exist for counties where less than three percent of land is used for row crops (northeast Minnesota and Ramsey County).
Groundwater Protection Effort – Part Two:
Mitigation Requirements for Elevated Nitrate Levels in Drinking Water

Voluntary Action:

  • Level One and Two – In areas where the public water supply has nitrate concentrations in excess of 5.4 mg/L. Drinking Water Supply Management Areas would be encouraged to voluntarily implement best management practices to reduce nitrate levels. Under Level Two, the decision to implement best management practices would remain voluntary. 

Mandatory Action:

  • Level Three – If after three years under Level Two nitrate concentrations continue to increase, then the Drinking Water Supply Management Area would be given a Level Three designation. The Commissioner of Agriculture – in consultation with a local advisory team – would then direct landowners to implement best management practices, testing, and educational programs.
  • Level Four – If after three years under Level Three nitrate concentrations continue to increase or remain high, the Commissioner of Agriculture – in consultation with local advisory teams – could direct landowners to implement additional practices beyond best management practices to address high nitrate levels.


  • Progress Under Way – In areas where progress is being made, the Commissioner of Agriculture could grant a one-time exemption before moving the area to the next level of regulation.
Groundwater Protection Effort – Part Three:
Designation of High Priority Areas
  • Criterion for High Priority Areas – The Commissioner of Agriculture could designate Level Two areas to be “high priority” and focus resources in those communities. The Commissioner would make the determination based on risk to people and communities and the degree of contamination. The Department of Agriculture also would approve a detailed plan for addressing high nitrate levels in these areas.

The Minnesota Department of Agriculture expects the rule to be published for formal comment in mid-to-late May with hearings to be held this summer and final adoption in late 2018.

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