Living for the Long Haul: Do we need to be concerned about water quality? Part 1 of 3

Columnists look at sources of surface and groundwater contamination and what we can do to protect ourselves and the environment


PINE RIVER — In previous articles we looked at health and environmental concerns related to what we waste in landfills and put down our drains, and we made suggestions about how we could limit the number of toxic products we put into our environment.

However, the task of keeping our many beautiful lakes and streams and our well water safe and healthy is increasingly difficult.

In recent years, we have begun to see concerning issues here in rural north central Minnesota that have been present in other parts of Minnesota, and the nation, for decades.

At present, 56% of the many lakes and streams in Minnesota do not meet water quality standards. In this, and subsequent columns, we will look at some of the sources of surface and groundwater (underground water from which we get our drinking water) contamination and what we can do to protect ourselves and protect the environment as well.

Nitrates are a frequent source of water contamination of lakes, streams and the well water we drink here in rural Minnesota. The primary source of nitrates is from the application of synthetic fertilizers to farm fields.


Rain causes runoff of fertilizer into lakes and streams where it acts as a nutrient for rapid growth of algae, which can result in reduced water quality, algae blooms and fish kills.

Nitrates are also getting into our drinking water. Our area of Minnesota is particularly vulnerable to contamination of groundwater because our soil tends to be a coarse sandy type. Sandy soil allows surface water to rapidly move from the surface into the groundwater.

Well water naturally has less than 3 milligrams/liter of nitrate. Any more than that indicates human contamination.

The federal government set a safety limit of 10 mg/L to prevent “blue baby syndrome," a potentially fatal condition, but more recent studies indicate the safety limit should be 5 mg/L because of association with diseases including colorectal cancer, lymphoma, thyroid disease and birth defects.

At present, approximately 10% of water wells in the central Pinelands Sand area of Minnesota have nitrate levels greater than the federal safety limit of 10 mg/L.

Although synthetic fertilizers spread on cropland account for about 70% of nitrates in our environment, they are not the only source of nitrates. Manure is another source of nitrates.

When large numbers of animals are concentrated in a small area, when manure pits leak, or even when manure is spread on fields, nitrates can contaminate groundwater.

Those of us who are not farmers often also use synthetic fertilizers on our lawns and gardens and frequently apply it in excess. These are the same high nitrogen fertilizers that lead to nitrate runoff into streams and lakes, and percolate through our sandy soil into our drinking water.


This is particularly concerning for homeowners who live near lakes and streams.

Herbicides, pesticides and insecticides are another source of surface and groundwater contamination in rural Minnesota. Between 2005 and 2020, the use of herbicides in the United States increased by 34%. In 1992, in the United States, we used 10 million pounds of the herbicide glyphosate (i.e. Roundup, Agent Orange).

By 2018, we were using 270 million pounds (a 260% increase in use). Glyphosate is only one of dozens of herbicides and pesticides spread on crop fields, lawns and gardens each year.

Pesticides are associated with many chronic diseases including cancers, reproductive disorders, birth defects and neurological dysfunction. About 11,000 people die each year, worldwide, due to accidental exposure to high doses of pesticides.

Pesticides also have profound harmful effects on our environment.

In soil, pesticides kill earthworms, soil bacteria and fungi that contribute to making soil fertile. Additionally, pesticides are the major cause of decline in bird, mammal, amphibian and insect populations.

Neonicotinoids (commercial insecticides) have been incriminated in the rapid decline of the honeybee population in the United States. Because crop farming uses both synthetic fertilizers and herbicides and pesticides, surface and well water, that is contaminated with nitrates, is frequently contaminated with pesticides or herbicides as well.

We will continue to look at the health of our surface and groundwater in subsequent columns.


(References to all factual information quoted provided on request and comments and questions are encouraged: 

Douglas J. Weiss and Barb Mann are caretakers/directors of the nonprofit Balsam Moon Preserve in Pine River, a spiritual place of peace, sustainability and renewal.

What To Read Next
Get Local