Friday, January 04, 2019

Series explores rural water quality issues – supply, quality, management and more – in the Upper Midwest

"The land near Wisconsin's Little Plover River didn't used to be much good for farming – until center-pivot irrigation," the StarTribune reports. "Since then, the river's base flow has drastically diminished." (StarTribune photo by Aaron Lavinsky)
Josephine Marcotty of the StarTribune in Minneapolis has written an outstanding three-part series on rural water quality in the Upper Midwest called "Water Pressure." Essentially, Minnesota, "a state renowned for its abundant water, confronts a difficult new fact of life," Marcotty reports. "It may no longer be able to guarantee what its residents have always taken for granted: Clean drinking water, industrial and agricultural growth, and many thousands of healthy lakes and streams."

Part one explores efforts by the town of Cold Spring, population about 4,500, to balance the needs of residents and a local brewery, and those of farmers who use fertilizer that can pollution. When Cold Springs Brewing Co. expanded in 2012 and needed more water, that threatened a nearby trout stream and triggered a "statewide political fight," Marcotty reports, one which could happen again if there's a drought or the brewery wants to expand again, which it hopes to do.

Part two details how more than 80 residents from rural Wisconsin sued one of the most powerful players in the state's agriculture industry, Central Sands Dairy, alleging that its irrigation and manure-spreading practices have depleted and polluted drinking water and caused the death of an infant. "A young mother in the tiny town of Nekoosa lost an infant daughter to a fatal brain malformation that has been associated with high levels of nitrate, a fertilizer byproduct found in the community’s drinking water," Marcotty writes. "Her tragedy led to a community well testing program this year, which found that 40 percent of the homes had nitrate concentrations that, like hers, were far above the legal limit.

Lewis & Clark Regional Water System
(StarTribune map by Ray Grumney)
Part three looks to the future, holding up the nonprofit Lewis & Clark Regional Water System as a model for how communities, states and the federal government can cooperate to supply areas with limited groundwater. The system consists of 337 miles of underground pipes that carry water drawn from a South Dakota aquifer to 20 cities, towns and utilities in three states (Minnesota, South Dakota, and Nebraska) and soon, Iowa.

The project, in the works for over 25 years, is a solution dreamed up after predictions that the area would eventually run out of water. The proposal faced many challenges along the way; it was too risky for many communities to gamble on, required a great deal of cooperation among communities that did sign on, needed nearly $590 million in state and federal subsidies, and relies on South Dakota water laws to protect the water in the aquifer.

The project could be a national example. Federal and state officials have long encouraged consolidation of small water systems that are prone to problems.

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