Protecting Our Drinking Water
Verndale, located in the heart of agriculture on the sandy soils of Wadena County in north-central Minnesota, has been described as a “sleepy little town.” However, the city has been anything but sleepy in its approach to battling elevated nitrates in the groundwater.
The nitrate levels are high enough that the city may be forced to drill a new well or construct a nitrate removal plant. Since neither option is cheap, nor preferred by the city council, the city began looking at other ways to tackle the problem.
The first was to replace aging sanitary sewer lines near the public water supply well. Many lines have been replaced, but there are still a number to go, and Verndale will continue with the replacement as funding becomes available.
The city is also working with farmers and agricultural professionals to promote the most efficient nitrogen management possible on area fields. Verndale first formed a wellhead protection team, which provided valuable technical and financial assistance, and included staff from the Wadena County Natural Resource Conservation Service, Wadena County Soil and Water Conservation District, Minnesota Department of Agriculture, Minnesota Department of Health (MDH) and the Minnesota Rural Water Association. The team assisted in developing a nitrogen management program and demonstration site as well as coming up with incentive dollars to encourage farmer involvement. By providing highly technical agricultural knowledge, the team was instrumental in helping the city work with area farmers in a proactive manner.
Once the nitrogen management plan was created, the city applied for two Clean Water Fund grants to help pay for some of the implementation of the nutrient management plan on the demonstration site. MDH awarded a WHP implementation grant to offset the cost of trying new farming practices, fertilizer rates, new fertilizer products (nitrogen inhibitors), soil testing, plant tissue testing, and irrigation water management. All of these items are critical in creating and fine tuning a sound nitrogen management program and were paid for by the Minnesota Department of Health.
The WHP team used grant dollars through MDH and two federal programs (Nutrient Management Initiative and the Best Management Practices Challenge) to create test plots on 160 acres of irrigated fields located on the edge of town, within the Drinking Water Supply Management Area. Check strips were created and lysimeters (monitoring wells) were installed underneath the check strips to monitor the groundwater quality leaving each of the strips. At the end of the growing season yields were measured from all the various check strips to determine how the various practices affected the farmer’s yield. By trying various products and nitrogen application rates the city and area farmers are hoping to determine which farming practices are best for protecting the groundwater and farmer profits.
The City also received financial assistance via a MDH WHP competitive grant for drilling a monitoring well up-gradient of the demonstration site to track nitrate levels entering the drinking water supply management area. In addition to the monitoring wells, the Verndale will be using existing private and public wells to establish a monitoring network to help track nitrate levels in the area surrounding the city. This network will help Verndale determine the source of the nitrates and narrow down whether or not it is coming from their aging infrastructure, the fields closest to town, or from fields further upgradient of their well. The monitoring network will be instrumental in helping Verndale track their efforts in taking back their community from those dreadful nitrates.
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