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Long-time volunteers keep tabs on nitrate levels

Marie Nitke/FOCUS Luke Stuewe, Romie Walz, Larry Lange and George Kupferschmid test roughly 90 water samples taken from wells within the Perham Wellhead Protection Area during one of their twice-yearly testing sessions, held last Tuesday at Lange’s residence in Perham. Not pictured is the fourth long-time volunteer, Jim Braun, and a newer regular volunteer, Darrel Huber.

With two decades of steady volunteer work under their belts, these guys are a dedicated bunch.

The four long-time members of Perham’s Volunteer Nitrate Sampling Network have been collecting and testing water samples from area wells twice a year, every year, since the inception of the Perham Wellhead Protection Area in the early 1990s.

And they’re still at it today.

Just last week, George Kupferschmid, Larry Lange and Romie Walz got together for their most recent testing session, joining the one paid man in the room, Luke Stuewe of the Minnesota Department of Agriculture. Missing was the fourth long-time volunteer, Jim Braun.

After traveling around to dozens of well locations, knocking on doors and visiting with people along the way, the friendly group met in Lange’s garage last Tuesday to test the nearly 90 samples of water they had collected.

Taken from wells within and nearby the Wellhead Protection Area, they were testing the samples for nitrate, just as they’ve done every spring and fall since 1993.

Perham was one of the first communities in Minnesota to pilot a Wellhead Protection Plan, according to Lange, and the Volunteer Nitrate Sampling Network was one of the plan’s implementation tools.

That means the water sampling records these guys have kept over the years are among some of the oldest in the state.

The length of their volunteer work is “exceptional in comparison to other communities” around Minnesota, Stuewe said. He added that Perham is one of only five or six cities in the state to have a volunteer program like this one.

The nitrate tests are free to local homeowners, irrigators and others wanting their water tested, and they produce fast results. However, Stuewe was quick to add that the tests are merely a screening tool, and the results are not certified. If a test shows an undesirably high level of nitrate in a sample, the users of that well are encouraged to have their water retested using a certified method.

A quick glance at the results last Tuesday showed nitrate levels of anywhere from zero parts per million (ppm) up to a rare 33. Most were in the very low range, hovering between zero and four.

Levels of 10 ppm or higher are considered unsafe in drinking water, as high nitrate levels are linked to various cancers, reproductive problems, “blue baby syndrome” and other serious health concerns.

Lange said most of the people who provide samples that test high for nitrate are aware of the problem and have been working on ways to reduce those levels.

Common sources of excess nitrate in groundwater include fertilizer and septic systems. Higher levels of nitrate are likely to leach into the groundwater in areas with sandy soils and shallow aquifers, like the Perham area. That vulnerability is a primary reason behind Perham’s Wellhead Protection Plan.

The protection area covers a smallish, oblong footprint that stretches out west of town. Water collected at the westernmost outskirts of that footprint takes 20 years to travel into town and work its way into the city’s water supply.

Stuewe said long-term trends revealed through the volunteer testing vary from well to well, but most wells “are flat” and don’t show any statistically significant changes in nitrate levels.

He called the tests “an exceptional educational tool,” not only for the property owners who can easily keep tabs on their water’s nitrate levels, but also for some local students who have helped out with the testing process. One class at the middle school often helps collect and test samples, while a group of high school students have recently been creating a GPS map of all the sample locations.

“The work these volunteers put in to educating area homeowners about nitrate levels present in their well is truly inspiring,” said Stuewe in a follow-up email to the Focus. “They do a lot, and ask nothing in return. We (the Minnesota Department of Agriculture) provide support to this group, but the credit goes to the volunteers who freely give their time to this effort.”

More volunteers are needed to help collect and test water samples into the future, in order to keep this free program going in Perham. To volunteer, or for more information, contact Kelcey Klemm, manager of the Wellhead Protection Committee, at the Perham city office at 346-4455.

Marie Johnson

Marie Johnson joined the Detroit Lakes Tribune in November 2017 after several years of writing and editing at the Perham Focus. She lives in rural Frazee with her husband, Dan, their young son and daughter, and their yellow Lab.

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