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The plan follows a year of debate among farmers, environmentalists and other interested parties on how to best address the problem of nitrate contamination in drinking water. High nitrates levels have been found in dozens of municipal water systems and one-tenth of private wells, especially in southeastern and central parts of the state.
Nitrate run-off in the Mississippi River, which originates in Minnesota, feeds a yearly algae bloom in the Gulf of Mexico that sucks oxygen out of a lengthy swath of water along the coast, killing some aquatic life. In Minnesota, nitrates in drinking water can cause the potentially fatal "blue baby syndrome" and other health conditions.
"Yet curbing farm chemicals is not easy in a state where agriculture contributes $19 billion annually to the economy — much of it tied to the 800,000 tons of fertilizer farmers use on some 16 million acres," Marcotty reports. Dayton's proposal is apparently the first by the governor of a state in the Mississippi River watershed. This will be the first time the state has attempted to regulate farmers' use of fertilizer. The state already restricts the use of phosphorus on lawns.
In the newest version of the plan, released by Dayton and Agriculture Commissioner Dave Fredrickson, farmers' use of nitrogen fertilizers would be limited by both voluntary and mandatory means, especially in the fall and winter when nitrates are most likely to leach into groundwater because there are no crops to soak them up. Exceptions to the rule would be made for crops that require fall nitrogen, and for areas where there are few crops or the soil isn't prone to nitrate leaching.
Republican legislators panned the new version, calling it a "reactionary re-branding of a vastly unpopular rule" in a statement. The public will be encouraged to give opinions about the plan at public meetings to be scheduled this summer.