It’s imperative to protect drinking water supplies

By Helen McLennan, Guest Columnist

Following the column written about the city of Little Falls public wells evaluation, the Morrison Soil and Water Conservation District (SWCD) felt compelled to remind all residents of the county why it is imperative to protect our drinking water supplies.

In Morrison County, the most common source of drinking water is ground water, through private wells and/or municipal supplies.

Cities like St. Cloud or the metro area, however, draw their major supplies from the Mississippi River. The Morrison County Local Water Plan addresses the protection of quantity and quality of both groundwater and surface water. This water protection plan has been approved and adopted by the county and every city in Morrison County. It is administered by the SWCD but is used by all agencies and county/city officials.

Through the Minnesota Department of Health, many cities and smaller municipalities throughout the state have developed well head protection plans. These plans identify not only the aquifers that their drinking water comes from, but the potential threats within the Drinking Water Supply Management Areas, (DWSMA). The DWSMA area goes beyond the city boundaries, leaving the cities vulnerable for land use decisions and actions beyond the city’s jurisdiction. That responsibility falls on the county’s land use decision makers and those decisions of planning commissions, private landowners and boards of adjustment.

It’s not just a matter of “Can I do this on my land?” It is broader than that. Does this project pose any threats to the drinking water supply within a DWSMA?

Landowners also need to be aware of what threat a land use decision may pose to their own private well. Every land use change should consider potential risk to drinking water supply management areas, whether a concentrated feedlot, plat development or new industry.

The city of Little Falls and other cities alike have to look at other potential threats to drinking water supplies. What about spills? A large truck carrying contaminants could have a major spill on a bridge that could potentially affect not only the wells of Little Falls, but if spilled into the Mississippi, could affect all the way to other cities as well.

Railroads travel through several of our cities and have had spills in the past, and always pose a risk.

What about bio-terrorism? Not that our small cities are likely targets, but it is a potential threat, and cities must be prepared to deal with any threat, natural or man-made. A terrorist action doesn’t always mean it’s from outside your own community.

When landowners question how many laws and regulations exist for land use, rest assured that without these governances, it has been proven that citizens don’t always make good decisions on their own. Cause and effect must be considered.

Morrison SWCD will conduct two week-long clinics each year to test well water for nitrates. The first for 2013 is the week of May 6 – 10 which is also the state “Drinking Water Supply Protection” week. The second   clinic   will  be    Oct. 7 – 11. 

The testing is free and  homeowners simply need a couple of ounces in a clean zip lock bag.

A greater nitrate study of the county is being conducted between the SWCD and Minnesota Department of Agriculture. Sample bottles and a letter have been mailed out to all residents of Culdrum and Buh townships,  asking homeowners to mail in a sample and a short well description. Those townships have shown significantly higher nitrate tests.

It has now been decided to also conduct the comprehensive testing in Belle Prairie, Agram, Bellevue and Swan River townships. Watch for letters and sample kits if you live in one of those townships as well.

Morrison SWCD requests that all residents be proactive in making sure that their drinking water is safe. High nitrates over 10 parts per million are unsafe for drinking standards. In the many years of testing, 15-17 percent of the wells tested annually do not meet safety standards. High nitrates are especially harmful to young children under the age of 2.

Studies are showing new emerging contaminants as well. Substances such as pharmaceuticals of all types are showing up in drinking water. Are they a health risk? Little is known as yet what level may be beyond safety. But it makes it evident that now and in the future, water supply managers must address risks and there may not presently be treatments to return all water to a safe drinking standard.

The sixth grade Water Festival, another educational event held in Morrison County at Camp Ripley in September, teaches all students the importance of safe and adequate water supplies. Parents and grandparents have a responsibility in their homes to demonstrate good water stewardship habits, from not wasting water, to how to protect their water from possible contaminants used in the home.

The water that is here today, is less than it was in the beginning of mankind, and it must serve a world population of nearly 7 billion people from now until eternity. There presently is no method of producing more water.

Helen McLennan is the district manager for the Morrison County Soil and Water Conservation District.