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Sky-high ammonia levels in Des Moines, Iowa

Monday, April 7, 2008

snow in IowaWhen you speak, as we often do, in parts per million, it can be hard to have a sense of what that means. For example, did you know that measurements of just 0.1 ppm of ammonia in water can cause problems for fish and other aquatic life?

So naturally when scientists found upwards of 2.0 ppm of ammonia in major Iowa streams this spring, they were concerned.

The extremely high levels were caused by a combination of agricultural chemicals and heavy ice cover. Apparently, much of the ammonia that would have ended up in the atmosphere was trapped by the ice and became runoff during spring thaw. In and around Des Moines, water officials had to turn to alternative sources to supply the city's water.

Ammonia runoff like this happens every year, apparently, but it isn't usually this bad. Of course, there's an easy way to fix the problem: don't apply fertilizer to frozen or snow-covered land. You'd hope that, as good stewards of the land, farmers would follow state guidelines that say as much of their own accord. Clearly that hasn't worked so far, and now politicians are considering an outright ban on the practice. Of course, in Farm Country, any regulations relating to agriculture are notoriously difficult to get through -- and regulations to protect the water supply likely won't be any different.

But who needs clean drinking water, anyway?

Photo by burnt in effigy.