Well kits, buffer strips two weapons in fighting water pollution around Wadena

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How safe is Wadena County's groundwater? Darren Newville, Anne Oldakowski and their team want people to know.

"We're working with the State Department of Agriculture," Oldakowski said. "It's been kind of an ongoing thing since 2011 where we were offering nitrate testing of private wells within certain townships. "

Newville and Oldakowski represented the Wadena County Soil and Water Conservation District at a Board of Commissioner's meeting in early November. The subject was nitrates. The definition of nitrate is a naturally occurring chemical made of nitrogen and oxygen. Nitrate is found not only in the soil and water but in the air and plants. Nitrate is found in air, soil, water, and plants. A great deal of it comes from comes from the decomposition of plants and animal wastes. People add nitrates to the environment by applying them to the ground in the form of fertilizer. It is also the product of septic systems, barnyards and feedlots.

People did those own tests using kits provided to them. They mailed their water samples to a certified lab in Detroit Lakes.

"The hard part is that some people when they get their water tests backs they see it is over 10 and at that point, they have to decide if they want to drill a new well," Oldakowski said. "We had some of them who already knew their water was high in nitrates and they didn't drink it anyway."

A study of wells in a handful of Wadena County townships revealed one of the townships - Wing River - had nitrates levels higher than 10 parts per million. Only wells with nitrate levels under 10 are considered safe. While wells in other Wadena County townships tested lower for nitrates, environmentalists believe the future of groundwater is everyone's problem. At this point, Oldakowski believes Wadena County's water is still safe, but keeping an eye on nitrate levels in important. Acceptable nitrate levels are also needed for livestock.

Oldakowski pointed out that many of the wells tested were sand point wells, which are usually quite shallow - 20 feet or less.

"Historically in our area with the sand, we've had nitrates in the water for a long time," Oldakowski said. "I would say nitrate testing is only part of having safe drinking water. We also recommend testing the water for bacteria. We recommend doing that every three years."

Along with the well testing comes a new era in water conservation for Minnesotans, led by a buffer strip initiative with some teeth in it.

State studies have shown 50 percent of Minnesota waters are polluted, but opponents, particularly farmers, see it as an unconstitutional land grab.

"Buffers have been around a long time as a best management practice," Oldakowski. "There are some parts of the state that definitely need a lot of help with buffers - the heavier agricultural areas, like the southwest area of the state."

Buffer strips do not have the impact in Wadena County they do in western and southwestern Minnesota. Oldakowski pointed out that the sandy soils found in the Wadena area allow water to filter right through the ground.

"Buffers are great at filtering, even if you have short grass or some sort of vegetation is better than nothing," Oldakowski said. "In Wadena County, we've had hardly any issues at all. A lot of the public waters and ditches we have are pretty well buffered. We're kind of in that zone in Minnesota where that transition between agriculture, prairie and forest."

So where are these local buffers?

"There are buffers on public waterways, that could be a stream or a ditch that is shared between two counties, and there are some private ditches, too."

Wadena County's Planning and Zoning office will be charged with handling any violations of the new buffer strip initiative.

"Our part in that is making sure landowners are in compliance," Oldakowski said.

The deadline for farmers to create buffer strips along public water was Nov. 1. The deadline for public ditches is Nov. 1, 2018.