Dodge County farm among many across region facing nitrate exposure
BERNE — “We definitely do not drink the water, for coffee or anything,” said Sonja Eayrs. “It isn’t safe for human consumption.”
Eayrs and her husband, Douglas, share the old family farmhouse just west of Berne in Dodge County. The couple — plus Douglas’ siblings, who use the house from time to time — enjoy the time they spend at the farm. However, they need to be careful of the water.
Drawn from the farm’s well, the water is loaded with nitrates, more than twice the limit for safe drinking according to the Minnesota Department of Health.
Drinking the water is out of the question, the Eayrses said, whether directly from the tap or in coffee or tea. The Eayrs will wash vegetables with well water, but they don’t use it for boiling pasta or other foods that might absorb some of the liquid.
“We use the well water for washing clothes and bathing,” Sonja said.
The well wasn’t always polluted with nitrates. The concentration of the chemical has grown through the years, Douglas said.
Since 2007, the couple has participated in the Southeast Minnesota Volunteer Nitrate Monitoring Network, getting their well water tested annually for the chemical. In the beginning, Douglas said, readings from their well bounced above and below the 10 milligrams per liter (10 parts per million) limit for safe drinking water.
Now, the number consistently sits in the mid-20s.
A neighbor’s well reached 30 ppm, Sonja said. They dug their well deeper, down to 350 feet to reach safe drinking water.
Douglas said he reached out to a well company and was told the 70-foot-deep well on the Eayrs property would need to be extended to 220 feet. But the cost of clean water from the tap would be about $20,000.
The reason for the increase in pollution, the Eayrses argue, is the hog confinement barn located about a mile and a half up the road. Between the underground manure pit and hog manure used on area fields as fertilizer, the hog barn has introduced nitrates to the groundwater. Pollutants can travel through the region’s porous karst geology, polluting the aquifers from which well water is supplied.
High nitrate amounts are just part of the problem with the Eayrs’ water. There is also a dangerously high level of atrazine, an active ingredient common in herbicides, and six other related chemicals common to crop fields.
Sonja and Douglas Eayrs haul bottled water to drink and bring jugs of clean water for cooking or making coffee to the farm. They’re not the only ones. Those chemicals — nitrates, herbicides and, likely, more — have infiltrated the aquifer and present health hazards for any area wells drawing water at that depth.
Calvin Alexander, a professor of earth science at the University of Minnesota, said studies have indicated that the nitrate problem begins in the fields where crops are fertilized with manure, chemical fertilizers and, sometimes, both.
“There are way more nitrates on the field than the crops need,” Alexander said.
Excess nitrates then seep into the aquifers through the soils or via sinkholes, starting with the higher levels but slowly working their way down. In Southeast Minnesota, there are about a dozen aquifer layers going down to 1,500 feet. Today, to find clean water, wells must be dug 300-500 feet down, he said.
“They’ve just written off the shallow aquifers,” Alexander said.
Sonja and Douglas Eayrs noted that when the hog farm up the road was built in 2006, the owner dug the well to 480 feet.
“The pigs are drinking clean water,” Sonja said. “And the rest of the neighbors are drinking nitrate-filled water.”