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This nitrate removal system has been in use in Ellsworth, a town of 450 people in far southwest Minnesota for almost 25 years. The 30 tanks that spin around contain filters that filter out nitrates. Barry Amundson / Forum News Service

Another water quality battle -- fighting nitrates in southwest Minnesota

ELLSWORTH, Minn. -- A few southwest Minnesota towns have been treating drinking water for nitrates for years, and in at least one case, in Ellsworth, for almost 25 years.

City supervisor Matt Buntjer said it’s not cheap using a reverse osmosis system from a Florida company that has long gone out of business -- but it’s necessary and the problem is getting worse.

Ellsworth, a town of 450 people only a mile from the Iowa border, is an area where shallow wells and intensive farming have created the problem.

There are some solutions in store, but no one living in the small towns want to complain about the farming aspect of the problem because they know the producers are the lifeblood of their communities that dot the landscape among the vast fields and pastures of the region.

And the shallow wells not far from the treatment plant that Ellsworth uses are only 26 feet to 32 feet deep. It’s a fact of life, but it adds another challenge to providing quality water.

Buntjer said the water is “really good,” except for the nitrates.

What he does is make sure the small treatment plant and the nitrate removal system is running properly to provide safe water to the 220 connections in the town.

The system is a series of 30 spinning filters in cylinders that cut the nitrate levels to well below the safe levels and then a salt water solution is used to clean the filters -- much like a water softening system.

It’s different than some other systems where one huge tank and filter system is used.

Raw water is also mixed with treated water, said Buntjer, still leaving it well below the safe levels.

Fluoride and chlorine is then blended in to create the final drinking water product.

He tests the water constantly and every quarter sends samples to the Minnesota Department of Health which conducts further testing.

Water bills for the town’s customers are “slightly higher” than some other surrounding towns, Buntjer said, because of the cost of treating the nitrates.

However, with the problem getting worse, he realizes something needs to be done and he is working on a plan.

Although he can’t reveal details yet, it’s all part of a plan to better protect area around the wells.

It’s called wellhead protection.

For many of the southwest Minnesota towns and cities, the wellhead protection areas are a godsend.

One example is Red Rock Rural Water System, with headquarters in Jeffers, that painstakingly has developed protection areas around their six wells that provide water to 8,000 people in nine counties, including 11 small towns and 2,025 rural users.

Manager Dominic Jones said they don’t have any nitrate issues but they have acted proactively during the 30 years of the ever-growing system.\

For example, in one of their well fields northwest of Windom about 300 feet from  the Des Moines River the system owns 160 acres surrounding three wells that are about 90 feet deep but are in porous, sandy soil that requires safe surroundings.

Not only is the 160 acres not farmed, but an adjacent landowner who is upstream from the well area water flow has about 400 acres in the federal government’s Conservation Reserve Program offering further protection to the water.

Jone said they monitor not only the quality, but the quantity of the well water and it has been historically stable for decades.

Another wellhead protection program is in place near the system’s other three wells near Lake Augusta about three miles southwest of Jeffers that came online about eight years ago.

There, the landowner still owns the 184-acre parcel of land where the wells sit but has it in a perpetual easement through the state’s Reinvest In Minnesota conservation effort. Upstream of the wells is an 800-acre federal wildlife management area providing more protection.

There was one problem in that area -- a scrap iron salvage yard just across the road from the wells.

In a long process that took years, and working with Department of Health grants, the area was cleaned up and the land then sold to the rural water system.

A trout stream -- said to be the only one in southwest Minnesota -- runs near the wells -- a testimony to the water quality in the area.

With demand for water growing from the Lake Shetek and Lake Sarah areas near Slayton, Jones said they are starting another wellfield farther to the west near the small town of Dovray -- and the long process of testing and developing the area and working with state agencies is well underway.

When asked about the water in their system, Jones said it is “absolutely” safe and quality water. About the only problem is the water is rather hard and he says about half of the customers use water softeners.

“You know the water quality issue is booming,” he said. “And it’s all good stuff.”

Buntjer hopes to cut some of the treatment costs in Ellsworth, too, in the coming years.

“I know the wellhead protection programs work. I’ve heard of many cutting their nitrate levels in half and that would really help us,” he said.

Once again, he doesn’t blame the farming community., “Most farmers do things the right way.”

For Ellsworth, though, it’s going to take a helping hand from a few farmers to make the protection program work.

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