A new Dakota County pilot program aims to pay for water treatment systems for some low-income residents who have private wells with contaminated drinking water.
Decades of water testing conducted by the county has found wells in different areas of the county with manganese or nitrate levels that exceed state guidelines. And nitrate levels are on the rise, said county groundwater protection supervisor Valerie Neppl.
“We do all this [water] tests, but the next step is how to help people solve a problem? said Neppl.
The program sets aside $20,000 in county funding for grants to provide free reverse osmosis units or water softeners and their installation for 10 to 15 households, Neppl said. Reverse osmosis removes nitrates, she says, while water softeners treat manganese.
Of the county’s 8,000 private wells, about 1,800 likely exceed state guidelines for nitrates or manganese. Just over a third of these households may qualify for the pilot program based on the low-income standard as defined by the US Department of Agriculture guidelines for rural development. For the metropolitan area, these guidelines state that a family of one to four must earn $79,900 or less to qualify.
Exposure to too much manganese can cause problems with memory, attention and motor skills, and consuming too many nitrates has been linked to “blue baby syndrome” in infants and increased heart rate, nausea, headaches and abdominal cramps in adults, according to Minnesota. Department of Health.
“These treatment systems can do a really good job of getting rid of a lot of that,” said Dakota County Commissioner Mike Slavik, who represents the more rural southern part of the county. “Not everyone has the financial capacity to be able to afford it.”
Despite its many suburbs, nearly half of Dakota County’s land is farmland, county officials said. Nitrogen fertilizers for crops can seep into aquifers below, causing high levels of nitrates in groundwater, especially in the southern and southeastern parts of the county.
Manganese occurs naturally in rock formations and high level pits are found primarily in Burnsville, Lakeville, Inver Grove Heights and Rosemount.
Slavik said a federal program pays for water treatment systems in more rural counties, including nearby Goodhue and Rice. But Dakota County’s population is too high to qualify, he said.
“It’s the same aquifer and the same challenges, but it’s just an arbitrary county line…which determines if they’re eligible,” Slavik said.
Few people know about high manganese levels unless they’ve tested their water, he said.
Neppl said a Minnesota Department of Health program also covers the cost of water treatment systems in more southern counties, such as Olmsted, but that program does not address manganese. Dakota County may share its pilot’s comments with the department, she said.
“Ideally, we hope there could be a state grant available in the future,” she said.
The county will contact eligible households to gauge interest, she said, and then it will be first-come, first-served. Residents will need to secure two bids for the installation of the treatment systems, she said.
Under-sink water treatment systems typically cost $1,000 to $1,500, Neppl said, while water softeners can cost $2,000, though prices may have risen recently.
“We care about public health,” she said. “We want to fix the problem now.”