It was common for small town Minnesota in the early 20th Century to be a cluster of houses around a church, a school, a co-op store and maybe a gas station.
Each house and business likely had a fairly shallow well, sometimes a hand-dug or driven well, to provide its water.
When municipalities were incorporated and had such things as paved streets and sewer and water systems, city councils and elected officials administered the water supply along with other city infrastructure.
Unfortunately, municipal water systems that were built half a century or more ago are now deteriorating, creating health and financial issues for rural communities.
Flint, Michigan has been in the national news for six years because of contamination from corroded pipes leaching heavy metals into its municipal water system. Flint was a high-profile example of the profound impacts aging water infrastructure and contamination from industry can cause in small municipalities, but it is far from the exception.
In her 2019 paper Rural America’s Drinking Water Crisis, human rights attorney Madison Condon said that the rural water crisis affecting millions of Americans “continues to go unnoticed.”
Condon found that poor regulation of agricultural waste and other pollutants, shrinking populations (and tax bases) and aging infrastructure all contribute to the increasing incidence of water quality violations dotting the rural landscape.
Decades-old water systems are susceptible to such failures as corroding pipes that leach copper and lead directly into the drinking supply.
There are nearly 60 thousand community water systems in the United States and 93% of them serve populations of fewer than 10,000 people – 67% serve populations of fewer than 500 people.
Often the tax base is not there to support the upgrades needed to bring aging rural water systems into compliance with modern water quality standards. In addition, there are ever more pollutants in the environment and they need to be addressed in upgraded water treatment systems.
A 2019 analysis of EPA data called Watered Down Justice confirmed that unequal access to safe drinking water is correlated most strongly with race, a scientific conclusion that mirrors the lived experience of people of color and low-income residents in the United States. Because of this confluence of issues, less affluent communities and communities of color tend to remain in situations where water quality is not up to modern standards, ultimately affecting their health and educational outcomes.
RURAL AITKIN COUNTY
Palisade is a city of around 100 people in north central Aitkin County. The Palisade city water system was installed in 1985.
Lifelong Palisade resident Gaylene Spolarich recalls the city water being the best she had ever tasted. Now Spolarich is forced to buy bottled water for her family of four young children.
Another Palisade resident, Richard Ladd, has been photographing his city water over the past few months – documenting the changing color of the water. He is alarmed by the deterioration in the water as well as by a sudden increase in water rates by the Palisade City Council.
Palisade residents are wondering who has oversight of their aging water infrastructure.
Towns have deep wells and sometimes water towers. Minnesotans trust their city officials to monitor the quality of water and maintain the city’s water infrastructure.
But what happens when water quality declines over time and residents don’t notice or just adapt to the change?
The first thing that has to happen is the municipality should ask for help.
MINNESOTA RURAL WATER ASSN.
The Minnesota Rural Water Association was founded in 1978 as a non-profit association governed by a board of directors. The MWRA is staffed with full-time personnel trained to offer professional on-site technical assistance and training to water and wastewater system personnel in managerial, financial and operation and maintenance of systems, as well as source water protection.
MRWA’s primary objective is to provide excellence in training and technical assistance to small municipal and non-municipal systems, rural water districts and wastewater districts with populations less than 10,000. MRWA also maintains information about grant and loan programs that are available to help finance public water system infrastructure.
Minnesota Rural Water Association regional technician Ben Osein has been providing support for the city of Palisade in its effort to restore its water quality.
Osein has been working with the city of Palisade to develop a regular testing and flushing protocol in an effort to restore the quality of the city’s water.
MINNESOTA DEPARTMENT OF HEALTH
Choosing Safe Places is an initiative of the MDH (www.health.state.mn.us) that is triggered when new child care businesses are licensed. It identifies and addresses potential environmental concerns at or around child care locations to protect children and providers from harmful substances. Across Minnesota, child care and early education programs have been found in locations that could expose children and staff to environmental contamination. Identifying and addressing potential environmental site hazards, especially before a child care program is licensed, can prevent and reduce harmful exposures to the children in these settings. MDH staff is available to assist; staff members consider current and former uses of property, businesses using harmful chemicals near property, and the safety of drinking water in the community.