Well testing talk gets spirited

Staff photo by Fritz Busch Licensed geologist Jeff Broberg, left, and Brown County Commissioners Dave Borchert, center, and Scott Windschitl, right, participate in a meeting discussing nitrate testing in well water at The Grand Center for Arts and Culture Jan. 29.

NEW ULM — More than 50 people packed a small meeting room, spilled out into a hallway, and up a stairway to discuss well water testing for nitrates at The Grand Center For Arts and Culture Jan. 29.

After two hours of discussion, heated at times, everyone agreed on one thing — water testing is important. The devil was in the details.

The subject came up after the Brown County Commissioners did not approve a Minnesota Department of Health (MDH) well water testing program for nitrates in Stark, Leavenworth and Mulligan Townships, due to lack of a second, several weeks ago. Most commissioners were hesitant to agree due to negative reactions they heard about it from a small number of farmers.

Minnesota Voices: Marching Forward, a self-described “non-partisan, diverse and expanding community committed to supporting emerging philosophies and actions of the resistance movement,” invited Brown County Commissioners Dave Borchert and Scott Windschitl to the meeting.

Geologist Jeff Broberg, who said he recently retired as an environmental consultant, led the discussion that had a few farmers standing up and shouting at times, opposing him.

A western Winona County farmer, Broberg said a 400-foot-deep well on his 176-acre farm has twice the health risk limit (HRL) for nitrates with 22 parts per million.

“It’s in the best interest of farmers and everyone to know what’s in well water,” Broberg said. “Deniers jump to false conclusions about testing water. It doesn’t serve your best interest to yell ‘fire’ in a theater.”

Broberg displayed maps of townships around Winona and Hastings that he said were all above the HRL. He said his HRL didn’t fall until he stopped using anhydrous ammonia, rotated crops, put land in the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), and quit farming within 300 feet of his well.

“My crop yields have not suffered since I made those changes,” Broberg said. “I’ve been dealing with these issues for many decades.”

Broberg said private wells don’t have the protections a utility does.

“You can just drink bottled water for about $3,000 the rest of your life,” Broberg said. “High nitrates can kill cattle. It’s happened in Winona County.”

“I think you’re exaggerating,” yelled Sleepy Eye farmer Richard Wurtzberger.

“No, I’m not,” Broberg said. “A variety of things can cause well contamination, especially near highways. Things like chlorides, pesticides and other chemicals can contaminate water. People jump to conclusions that regulation is the only solution. It’s not.”

“I’m offended by quite a few things I hear,” said New Ulm agriculture consultant Steve Commerford. “We need factual information.”

“It’s not appropriate for you to oppose this,” Broberg said. “It turns to bullying time and time again. It’s not in your or anybody else’s interest to not know about your water.”

Broberg said farmers didn’t need to worry about their well test data because unless they sign for it to be public, it’s not public.

Commissioner Borchert echoed that statement later.

“When most farmers’ wells test high for nitrates a second time, they drop out of the testing program and dig new wells,” Broberg said.

Commerford said well testing was nothing new in Brown County.

“It was done 20 years ago and it was a fiasco,” Commerford said. “I was on the test committee. I refused to listen to scientists. I got flak from agencies and a grant was pulled. The implication that agriculture pollutes is nothing to take lightly. To assume well water high in nitrates comes from nitrogen fertilizer is a false assumption. The Minnesota Department of Agriculture hasn’t supplied peer-reviewed research that nitrogen fertilizer use creates high well water nitrate levels.

Sleepy Eye farmer Greg Bartz urged landowners interested in free well water testing for nitrates to bring samples to the New Ulm Farm and Home Show March 9-10 at the New Ulm Civic Center.

“There are a lot of misconceptions out there,” Bartz said. “Farmers should know what’s in their well water. Any well water can be brought for testing at the Farm and Home Show.”

Borchert said a meeting like the one held, with frank discussion, is how government should work.

“I do research to the best of my ability,” Borchert said. “At first, I thought I would support the MDA well water testing. Then people brought up some very valid questions at the board meeting and I didn’t feel comfortable supporting it. I thought about tabling it. I felt the State of Minnesota should be there. It’s their program. I think we need to have another county board discussion about it.”

Borchert said a brother of his died of Blue Baby Syndrome, an environmentally-caused children’s health issue related to nitrates in drinking water, more than 50 years ago.

Broberg said exposure to nitrates can cause a number of diseases including some forms of cancer.

Commerford said Borchert did a very good job explaining his viewpoint. Commerford urged people to look at the whole picture, that bacterial contamination can be a factor.

Broberg said nitrates and bacteria are not linked.

Brown County resident Molly Treml Nelson said her well water tested low for nitrates but high for arsenic, making it not safe to drink.

Commissioner Windschitl said he reads everything he can before county board meetings.

“My concern is nitrates can come from other agriculture sources, like plants and septic systems,” Windschitl said. “It’s a very serious issue that can’t be solved overnight.”

Windschitl said commissioners recently approved a resolution to pay up to $400 for residents to seal old wells.

Broberg said he appreciated those that came to the meeting.

“Please work together to help solve this,” he said.

Fritz Busch can be emailed at fbusch@nujournal.com.