ST. PAUL — Public water systems in rural Minnesota may be weighing costly upgrades, University of Minnesota researchers told state lawmakers Wednesday, July 15, but private wells are creating issues of their own that regulators currently have no way to address.

With agriculture and industry already posing contamination threats to drinking water sources in the state, they said, water treatment will only become more expensive in rural parts of the state where extreme weather events caused by climate change can wreak havoc on aging infrastructure. Yet private wells may avoid scrutiny due to their being somewhat outside of the Minnesota Department of Health's regulatory scope.

"Quite frankly, it's generally ignored because private well owners, for various reasons, are not good at managing their own water supplies," professor Peter Calow of UMN's school of public affairs said during a legislative committee hearing Wednesday.

About 21% of Minnesotans drink from private wells, or roughly 1.2 million people, according to the state health department. And while the health department does have a say in where new wells are sited, Calow told the Minnesota Legislature's joint-subcommittee on water policy that its handling of private well water quality monitoring has been lackluster.

Citing the findings of a report he co-authored at UMN's Water Resources Center, Calow suggested that legislators consider laws requiring the owners of property containing private wells to test them before putting their land up for sale.

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Private well owners are currently required to test for water quality on a voluntary basis. Sen. Bill Weber, himself a real estate broker, pointed out that many lenders will require them of borrowers seeking to purchase property.

"The public is much more aware and knowledgeable nowadays as it relates to that particular issue, as are lenders, quite frankly, in their underwriting capabilities," Weber, D-Luverne, said.

At the heart of the water quality report is what researchers said is a need for better governance of Minnesota's patchwork water treatment regulation. They stopped short of recommending that water authorities be consolidated, but argued instead that there should be a clearer framework for existing ones to coordinate with one another.

To be effective, Calow said, that would likely still require the creation of a "coordinating body" of some kind backed by statutory law. Water authorities in Minnesota that currently choose to collaborate have been able to do so to greater success, he said.

"Integration is really important when you’re dealing with such a complex system as drinking water," Calow said.

Data on private well contamination are scarce due to their looser oversight. The nonprofit Environmental Working Group reported in March that nitrate levels in rural Minnesota public water systems have risen since the mid-1990s, likely because of agricultural runoff, and that the same could be true for private wells, which often draw from the same sources of water.