What you need to know about the nitrogen management rule

Earlier this month the Minnesota Department of Agriculture (MDA) released the draft Nitrogen Fertilizer Rule, which is being implemented to minimize potential sources of nitrate pollution in the state’s groundwater. Through Aug. 11, the public can submit comments on the draft rule, which currently contains two parts:

  1. If a farm is located in a vulnerable groundwater area based on soil hydrology and geology information, nitrogen fertilizer application in the fall and on frozen soils will be restricted.
  2. If a farm is located in an area that has high concentrations of nitrate in groundwater, the draft rule lays out a process for mitigation that includes the use of nitrogen fertilizer best management practices (BMPs) and alternative practices.

With that, the Minnesota Corn Growers Association (MCGA) put together a set of frequently asked questions (below) to help the public understand and comment on the rule before the 60-day comment period closes.

Where did this rule come from?

The nitrogen fertilizer rule is based on the Minnesota Nitrogen Fertilizer Management Plan, which outlines the state’s strategy for preventing contamination and responding to elevated nitrate from fertilizer in groundwater. This plan first originated in 1990 followed by a three-year revision before being released in March 2015. The nitrogen fertilizer rule outlines the MDA’s procedure to regulate nitrogen fertilizer use in vulnerable groundwater areas and areas of high concentration.

MCGA has been involved throughout the nitrogen fertilizer rule’s revision process, including the submission of comments on the overall Nitrogen Fertilizer Management plan in 2013 and on this specific rule in 2016. MCGA also has a representative on the Nitrogen Fertilizer Management Plan advisory committee to provide input on the various aspects of the management plan.

When will the law go into effect?

Expected fall 2018

How are nitrate levels determined?

The MDA uses nitrate data from both public and private drinking wells to evaluate pollution frequency and concentration trends.

How do I know if I am in a vulnerable groundwater area and restricted from fall nitrogen application?

A vulnerable groundwater area is land where nitrate can move easily through the soil into groundwater. The saturated hydraulic conductivity of the soil, which measure the soil’s ability to transmit water, as well as if there is karst or bedrock at or near the surface determines if the area is vulnerable. MCGA recommends you view the current vulnerable groundwater area map to see if you are affected.

Vulnerable groundwater areas will be determined section by section. In areas where more than 50% of the section has vulnerable groundwater, fall and frozen soil application will not be allowed in the entire section. If less than half of the section has vulnerable groundwater, application is only restricted to fields with karst or near-surface bedrock. Key exceptions include the application of phosphorous fertilizers (Monoammonium Phosphate and Diammonium Phosphate) and other micronutrients that contain nitrogen. The overall applied nitrogen rate must not exceed 20 pounds per acre.

If my farm is located in an area of high nitrate concentration in groundwater, what is the mitigation process?

Mitigation, or the action to reduce severity, is separated into four levels depending on the level of nitrate concentration found in private and public drinking wells. All areas identified with nitrate contaminated ground water will begin in a voluntary level of mitigation level 1 or 2, depending on if it is near or over the nitrate health risk limit of 10 milligrams per liter. Nitrogen fertilizer BMPs and alternative practices will be promoted within these areas under the advisement of a local advisory team.

The MDA will reevaluate the mitigation level after three growing seasons. Land owners may find themselves in level 3 and 4 if nitrogen fertilizer BMPs are not being used and nitrate groundwater levels exceed the health risk limit. Areas in these regulatory levels will be subject to specific management practices ordered by MDA.

MN Department of Agriculture mitigation criteria map


What are the consequences of not following the nitrogen fertilizer rule?

The general progression of non-compliance includes: 1) educating the landowner, 2) compliance assistance and 3) enforcement. For the latter, the MDA has authority to issue administrative, civil and criminal penalties.

How can I provide comment on this rule?

First, MCGA will be submitting comments on the draft. If you wish to provide comment, you will need to submit your comment to Larry Gunderson with MDA by Aug. 11. (JULY 20, 2017 UPDATE: MDA extends comment period on proposed nitrogen fertilizer regulation, public input sought at meetings scheduled in Northwestern Minnesota. Learn more.)

You may submit your comment through the online comment form or mail to the below address:

Larry Gunderson
Minnesota Department of Agriculture – Pesticide and Fertilizer Management Division
625 Robert Street North
St. Paul, MN  55115

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