Forty Years after the Clean Water Act, The Corn Belt’s Rivers and Streams are Still Murky
Washington, D.C. - Forty years after passage of the federal Clean Water Act, it is clear that farm pollution, which remains exempt from the law, is standing in the way of clean water in Iowa and across the nation, a new Environmental Working Group analysis shows. The law succeeded in cutting pollution from cities and industries, but 80,000 miles of rivers and streams in the U.S. remain badly polluted by chemical fertilizers and manure.
“Iowa is a case study of the consequences of the most serious flaw in the Clean Water Act, that it does little or nothing to address farm pollution,” said Craig Cox, EWG’s senior vice president of agriculture and natural resources and co-author of the report. “States across the nation are experiencing the same problems. The Clean Water Act has done a great job of cutting industrial pollution but farm pollution continues unabated.”
EWG’s report, titled Murky Waters, used 12 years of water quality data from Iowa to expose what amounts to an ongoing environmental and public health disaster. The statistical analysis found there has been no improvement in the state’s water quality over the last decade, and more than 60 percent of monitored rivers and streams are rated “poor” or “very poor” because of pollution from agriculture. Moreover, Iowa’s rivers and streams become even more polluted in the summer months, when Americans flock to enjoy the outdoors. In the three summers between 2009 and 2011, water quality at 80 percent of 83 monitored Iowa sites scored “poor” or “very poor” – 32 percent above the year-round averages.
Murky Waters shows that the two pollutants most responsible for poor water quality ratings are nitrogen and phosphorous. According to state records, 92 percent of the nitrogen and 80 percent of the phosphorous come from “nonpoint sources,” and nearly all of that comes from farms. Nitrate pollution of drinking water can cause severe illness and death. Water quality regulations, however, almost exclusively target municipal and industrial discharges, relying overwhelmingly on voluntary measures by farm businesses to curb agricultural discharges.
“Nitrogen and phosphorous pollution is getting worse – not better – in water bodies around the country, and sedimentation is clogging streams, rivers and lakes,” said EWG analyst Andrew Hug, co-author of the report. “It’s time to reconsider the free pass given to most agricultural operators and establish a basic standard of care expected of farm owners and operators.”
The problems in Iowa are just the tip of the iceberg. From coast-to-coast, runoff from farm fields overloaded with fertilizers and manure is polluting drinking water, spurring blooms of toxic algae and limiting recreation. The infamous dead zones in the Gulf of Mexico and the Chesapeake Bay are the best-known examples of farm pollution’s effects, but it causes similar local and regional problems across the nation.
Murky Waters calls on policy makers to adopt targeted, common sense standards to phase out particularly risky practices such as planting crops right up to stream banks or allowing livestock unmanaged access to streams. Landowners should also be expected to control the gully erosion that creates direct pipelines for mud, fertilizer and manure to flow into streams and rivers. Many, if not most, farmers would agree that these practices are simply bad business and bad for agriculture’s brand.
“Basic standards that cut back the most damaging farming practices, coupled with strengthened and fully funded voluntary programs, would finally set us on a path toward cleaner water for our children and ourselves,” said Cox.
However, Cox noted, the farm subsidy lobby is trying to push through a farm bill that cuts $6 billion from critical conservation programs and guts the decades-old conservation quid-pro-quo that mandates that farmers take simple steps to cut pollution and protect wetlands in return for generous farm subsidies.