Since its founding, the University of Minnesota has been intimately tied to the Mississippi River. Not only does it form the spine of the Twin Cities campus, it reminds us of our state’s history, from the sacred Dakota land of Bdote to the flour and timber industries, which used the river as a highway to transport goods.
What many may not know is that the river also provides the drinking water for the majority of people living in Minneapolis and St. Paul. This water is plentiful and safe to drink. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t issues that need attention.
“There is a concern about emerging contaminants that aren’t limited to urban areas,” says Jeffrey Peterson, the director of the Water Resources Center (WRC), a U of M think tank that promotes environmentally sensitive freshwater management.
In a 2020 report titled The Future of Minnesota’s Drinking Water: A Framework for Managing Risk, WRC acknowledges that the future quality of our state’s drinking water will likely be stressed by several factors, including agricultural and industrial pollutants and aging infrastructure for both water and sewage systems.
In 2017, mindful of what happened in Flint, Michigan, where tens of thousands of residents were exposed to dangerous levels of lead and even Legionnaires’ Disease through contaminated drinking water, the Minnesota Legislature directed the Minnesota Department of Health (MDH) to work in conjunction with WRC to assess how many Minnesotans were exposed to lead in their drinking water. They were also asked to estimate the cost of eliminating the problem. (According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention [CDC], there are no safe levels when it comes to lead exposure. Children and infants are the most vulnerable; lead exposure can damage developing brains, nervous systems, red blood cells, and kidneys.)
“The water itself is very clean in the Cities,” says Lucia Levers, a WRC research associate who worked on the report, which was released in 2019. “But if it travels through a lead pipe to get to your glass, then that’s a problem.”
Levers and her colleagues found that there are are approximately 100,000 lead service lines in Minnesota. Pipes and solder installed before 1986 are more likely to contain high levels of lead, which means older neighborhoods are at a higher risk of lead exposure.
The report estimated that it would cost $4 billion to remove lead from the state’s drinking water infrastructure. But, it also estimated that the public health benefits of getting rid of lead would total $8 billion in reduced spending on needs ranging from health care to special education costs.
“We wanted to show that there are very real public costs associated with not doing anything, and those affect everyone,” says Levers. “Even though some of these [buildings and facilities] may be privately owned, it really is a public concern, because these are Minnesota children and I think we have a responsibility to not only make sure that they have the cleanest water that they can, but to [realize] it’s a lot of the poorer children and children of color who are being exposed.”
The government’s Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, which passed in 2021, includes $55 billion to eliminate lead service points.
Another contaminant that is getting attention from U of M researchers is per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances—known as PFAS. PFAS are manmade chemicals that have been used in firefighting foam and a host of consumer products—including raingear, nonstick coating, food wrapping, and sprays that protect fabrics from stains. They were developed in the 1940s by DuPont and 3M. (3M stopped making them in their original form in 2002.)
Known as “forever chemicals,” PFAS last for thousands of years; every American who has been tested for them has PFAS in their blood, according to Clean Water Action, an environmental lobbying organization. They can get into the drinking water supply if they are spilled or deposited at the site where they are produced. Once that happens, they are transported to lakes and rivers through stormwater runoff.
While scientists are still studying the health impacts of PFAS, there is growing concern that they can impact fertility, increase certain cancers, and affect the growth, learning, and behavior of infants and children.
“We are pretty sure they aren’t good for us,” says Matt Simcik (M.S. ’94), who is a professor at the U of M’s School of Public Health. Simcik is researching where PFAS come from and how they move through the environment. He also notes that the new formulations used by companies don’t break down any easier than the early versions.
Simcik and his research team, with funding from the Department of Defense, have devised a way to prevent the chemicals from traveling through aquifers and then getting into drinking water sources. By using coagulants—non-toxic compounds that are used to treat drinking water—Simcik’s team was able to get PFAS to adhere to particles in the groundwater, similar to a sponge that catches harmful chemicals but still lets clean water flow through. They are currently field-testing the technique.
“Eventually we will probably be able to figure out how to destroy PFAS,” he says. “But in the meantime, we’d like to keep them all under control. Our technique basically captures them and locks them into place.”
Sidebar: Groundwater vs. surface water: What’s the difference?
Groundwater, as the name implies, is water found underground in soil and rock, often in subterranean aquifers. Surface water, on the other hand, is found in lakes, wetlands, and rivers.
According to the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA), groundwater is the source of drinking water for three-fourths of all Minnesotans.
That’s a challenge because the MPCA says groundwater in parts of the central and southwestern regions of the state is contaminated with high nitrate concentrations, largely from agriculture and, to a smaller extent, failing septic systems.
“Nitrate levels are higher in groundwater under agricultural land than in water below urban areas,” according to MPCA’s website (pca.state.mn.us). “Groundwater availability in Minnesota [also] varies by region. It is more difficult to access in the northeast, when it’s available at all, and is scarce in some areas of the southwest.”
Groundwater quality also varies around the state, and can vary even within an aquifer, with the quality changing at different depths.
"Near-surface groundwater in areas of high urban density or intensive agriculture is more likely to be contaminated by chloride or nitrate. The overuse of groundwater [also] threatens surface water quality and draws contaminated near-surface water into our drinking water aquifers. Current regulations and voluntary best management practices will not be sufficient to maintain healthy groundwater and shield contaminated wells and aquifers from additional pollution,” MPCA says.
Sidebar: Where the Suburbs Get Their Drinking Water
The Metropolitan Council reports that 75 percent of the Twin Cities’ suburbs’ drinking water comes from groundwater aquifers. As the suburbs have grown, municipalities have had to draw more water from these aquifers at a level experts agree is not sustainable.
The metro suburbs' drinking water comes from four aquifers, all of which have different challenges. The Prairie du Chien-Jordan aquifer—the region’s largest—is not available to some of the area’s newer communities and is vulnerable to contamination.
A team led by the Water Resources Center has brought together experts across science, engineering, economics, and policy disciplines to evaluate the need for managed aquifer recharge.
"We are a state with lakes galore and we also have the Mississippi, so we think of ourselves as water central,” says Jeffrey Peterson, the director of the Water Resources Center. “It’s a mind bender for a lot of people when you tell them there are water supply issues in Minnesota.”
Sidebar: Water is for everyone
Starting this past September with a grant from the Environmental Protection Agency, a team led by Humphrey School of Public Affairs Associate Professor Bonnie Keeler (M.S. ’07, Ph.D. ’13) started researching water quality on the Mississippi River, from the Twin Cities to New Orleans. The project will help federal organizations that want to improve river water quality align funding with environmental justice concerns. This can determine who bears the cost and who receives the benefits of improvements to water quality.
“Drinking water infrastructure is expensive to build and to maintain and it often relies on the tax base to support that infrastructure,” says Keeler. “If you are in a poor community or live in an area with a declining population, that means there is less money available to fix [those problems].”
Keeler points to rural counties with agricultural areas and high levels of industry, which often overlap with low-income communities of color. “Those are the places where you see the greatest drinking water violations,” she says. “We have the resources in the United States to demand that everyone has access to a basic level of safe drinking water.”
The project will also elevate voices that have been traditionally left out of the conversation when it comes to water quality, which Keeler says is usually dominated by industry. Those will include communities that have decades—if not centuries—of connection to the river, including the Dakota people, whose origin story is tied to Bdote, the confluence of the Mississippi and Minnesota Rivers.
Sidebar: Private Well? Here's how to know the water is safe
In Minnesota, one in five people—roughly 1.2 million—get their drinking water from a private well. Hennepin County has the largest number of wells in the state.
In 1974, the state implemented the Minnesota Well Code, which mandates that wells must not only be built properly, but also be located in places that are less likely to be exposed to contaminants. While that protection does a lot to ensure safe drinking water, naturally occurring substances and wear and tear can compromise the quality of what comes out of the tap, according to Frieda von Qualen (M.A. ’16), the strategic initiatives coordinator in the Water Policy Center at the Minnesota Department of Health (MDH).
In Minnesota, there are five main contaminants that can make their way into wells: coliform bacteria, including E. coli, which can cause severe illness; nitrates, which affect how oxygen is carried throughout the body; arsenic, which is naturally occurring and can lead to a higher risk for certain kinds of cancers and diabetes; manganese, which has been connected to memory loss and learning challenges; and lead, which can leach into a well through lead pipes and service lines.
In her work at MDH, von Qualen connects with local health departments, conservation districts, and private well users to encourage regular well testing so people know what’s in their water and how to address any quality issues that they find.
If you have a well, Von Qualen recommends having it tested every year. You can contact your local health department or the Department of Soil and Water to see if testing kits are available for you. If they aren’t, there are private labs across the state that accept water samples.
You should also do an annual inspection yourself—check to make sure that the cap to the well is on securely and that there are no cracks or holes. If you spot any issues, the MDH website has a list of well contractors that can make repairs. And mark where your well is before snowfall, so that you don’t accidentally damage it with a plow and let outside waters enter.
Finally, if you are no longer using your well, seal it properly so that contaminants don’t seep into the groundwater.