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Agreement approved to reduce nitrate in groundwater and surface water

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For years, Dakota County and the Vermillion River Watershed have played a leadership role in working to understand and address groundwater and surface water contamination from agricultural activities through the Agricultural Outreach program, developed as a result of the Hastings Area Nitrate Study almost 10 years ago.

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At its regular meeting this week, the Dakota County Board of Commissioners executed a grant agreement with the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, which administers the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) 319 grant program and executed an agreement with the University of Minnesota for the Dakota County Nitrate Reduction Project.

In 2011, Dakota County applied for, and was awarded, a grant that is administered by the MPCA to reduce nitrates in the county's groundwater and surface water resources. This Nitrate Reduction Project marks a change in strategy for addressing the county's nitrate contamination issues, in conjunction with the Minnesota Department of Agriculture's updated Nitrogen Management Plans, with more specific, localized accountability for nitrate contamination from farming.

Since 2008, Dakota County has contracted with the University of Minnesota and Extension to conduct nitrogen fertilizer research and outreach in support of the county's nitrate reduction efforts.

The Agricultural Outreach Program provides farmers with science-based, practical information about strategies to protect water quality while maintaining crop yields and productivity. Among the services provided by the University of Minnesota Extension Agriculture production water quality educators are nitrogen rate studies that demonstrate how to achieve the best yield with reduced nitrogen input, workshop on manure management, pesticide application practices and riparian forested buffers. Area farmers have responded positively to these efforts, adopting new and different farming and land management practices that will improved water quality in the long run such as reducing their nitrogen fertilizer application rates.

The grant amount is $215,307, with the county expected to provide at least 45 percent of the project cost in in-kind work and matching funds. County staff has developed a three-year project budget of $573,356 that includes $358.049 in matching funds form an in-kind contributions of staff time and cash expenditures from the county, the Department of Agriculture and the Vermillion River Watershed. The Matching activities are from already planned activities, not new expenditures. The research agreement with the University of Minnesota is for $182,700 from Jan. 1, 2013 to Dec. 31, 2015.

The Hastings Area Nitrate Study (Phase I) was conducted from 1999 through 2003 to determine the extent and sources of nitrate contamination problems in the city of Hastings and the surrounding areas. One quarter of the private wells tested as part of the study exceeded the drinking water standard for nitrate (10 milligrams per liter) and another quarter contained elevated levels of nitrate (3-10 milligrams per liter).

Nitrate can come from a variety of sources, but in the Hastings Area Nitrate Study, it was found to be very strongly associated with row crop agriculture. The Vermillion River was found to play a role in transporting contaminated water from its upper reaches to its lower reaches.

Dakota County has been conducting HANS Phase II, working in cooperation with the University of Minnesota Extension Service, the City of Hastings and others to prevent future groundwater contamination within the Vermillion River Watershed.

Area farmers have responded positively to these efforts, adopting new and different farming and land management practices that will improved water quality in the long run such as reducing their nitrogen fertilizer application rates.

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