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Minnesota officials to check 70,000 wells for nitrogen

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Minnesota officials aim to launch an ambitious plan to test 70,000 private wells for nitrogen, as part of sweeping effort to protect the state's drinking water, the Star Tribune reports.

Concern about nitrogen in Minnesota’s surface waters has grown in recent decades because some Minnesota streams have been found to exceed nitrogen levels considered safe for drinking water sources, according to a Minnesota Pollution Control Agency report released in June. At least two dozen communities around the state have high nitrate levels in their drinking water, MPR News reported earlier this fall.

The June report also said studies increasingly show the toxic effects of nitrates on aquatic life. And the study notes that Minnesota is the sixth-worst offender among the Mississippi River states for dumping nitrates into the river, and ultimately, the Gulf of Mexico.

A 2011 Minnesota Department of Agriculture report raised concerns anew about nitrate levels, noting that 62 percent of monitored wells in central Minnesota showed nitrate levels "in the most vulnerable portion of the aquifer, near the edge of the fields, exceeds the drinking water limit."

There are no easy, quick fixes to the problem. The Agriculture Department's new plan, which officials intend to finalize early next year, calls for prodding farmers to better control their use of fertilizer, the primary source for nitrogen that ends up in drinking water, the Star Tribune reports. Proposals also include asking farmers not to fertilize in the fall, and paying farmers to stop farming some lands, the newspaper notes.

The state's Nitrogen Fertilizer Management Plan was released in draft form in August.

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