Farming & Tap Water

Farm pollution contaminates tap water across the U.S., with millions of Americans getting their water from sources laden with pesticides and chemicals from fertilizers and animal manure.

Runoff from rain and irrigation on farms carries contaminants to gullies, streams, lakes and rivers and seeps into groundwater that utilities rely on for water, as well as into private household wells. And this is perfectly legal, because farmers are largely exempt from the Clean Water Act.

Contaminants include the chemicals nitrate and phosphorus, found in commercial fertilizer and manure. Nitrate in drinking water is linked to cancer, birth defects and other human health issues, and phosphorus causes toxic algae blooms like the one that in 2014 caused the city of Toledo, Ohio,  issue a do-not-drink order to its 500,000 residents for three days. In addition to these chemicals, manure can carry pathogens like E. coli and antibiotic-resistant bacteria.  

Pesticides like atrazine, a chemical known to disrupt hormones and harm the developing fetus, contaminate tap water at dangerous levels in several states. According to EWG’s Tap Water Database, which aggregates testing data from utilities nationwide, between 2015 and 2017, atrazine was found in water systems serving 44 million people in 35 states.

Rural areas, which are most affected by farm pollution, are often served by small utilities and private wells. Because utilities rely on ratepayers for revenue, small utilities have the fewest resources to address contamination from farm pollution. Private wells are typically tested only when they are dug, if at all – and their owners are on the hook financially to clean up any contamination.

Treating water is expensive. What’s more, treatment to remove pathogens creates disinfection byproducts called TTHMs, themselves toxic for humans. It is far cheaper to keep these and other contaminants out of drinking water than to treat it after the fact.

To help consumers understand the issue of farm pollution of drinking water and advocate for change, EWG tracks and analyzes contamination of tap water, the creation of federal and state agricultural and public health policy, the growth of factory farms and algae outbreaks, farmers’ adoption of conservation practices, and other aspects of this complex issue.

Tuesday, October 9, 2018

Outbreaks of potentially toxic algae in U.S. lakes, rivers and other waterways rose by an additional 40 percent this year compared to 2017, according to EWG’s tracking of news reports. 

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AgMag
Article
Thursday, October 4, 2018

Hurricane Florence’s torrential rains pelted areas of North Carolina that are home to more than 1,500 industrial animal operations with more than 1,000 nearby animal waste storage cesspools. These operations have the potential to annually produce as much as four billion gallons of wet swine waste and 400,000 tons of dry poultry waste, according to an exclusive analysis by EWG and Waterkeeper Alliance.

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News Release
Tuesday, October 2, 2018

America has a serious problem with nitrate contamination of drinking water – and it is most severe in the small communities that can least afford to fix it.

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Reports & Consumer Guides
Tuesday, October 2, 2018

Tap water across the nation is contaminated with an agricultural pollutant linked to cancer, and the problem is worst in small communities that can least afford to fix it, according to a new EWG analysis.

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News Release
Friday, September 21, 2018

Newly released satellite images show the devastating flooding contaminated by pollution from Hurricane Florence’s pounding of the Carolinas, including waste from the hundreds of industrial-scale hog and poultry farms in North Carolina’s coastal plain. Photos from the U.S. Geological Survey starkly demonstrate the consequences of concentrating confined animal feeding operations, or CAFOs, in low-lying areas along sensitive flood plains.

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News Release
Wednesday, September 19, 2018

Residents of communities near industrial-scale hog farms in North Carolina face an increased risk of potentially deadly diseases, Duke University scientists reported in a study released this week.

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News and Analysis
Article
Tuesday, September 18, 2018

This summer, EWG is tracking outbreaks of potentially toxic algae across the U.S. We have been startled to find that these outbreaks are erupting everywhere: from the East Coast to the West Coast, from the Great Lakes to the Gulf of Mexico.

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News and Analysis
Article
Wednesday, September 12, 2018

When Hurricane Matthew hit North Carolina in 2016, it flooded more than 140 feces-strewn industrial-scale swine and poultry barns, more than a dozen open pits brimming with liquid hog waste and thousands of acres of manure-saturated fields.

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News Release
Friday, August 31, 2018

An unprecedented environmental catastrophe is striking Florida’s storied beaches, lakes and rivers this summer. Outbreaks of three separate strains of harmful algae are killing fish and other marine animals, threatening public health and devastating recreation and tourism.

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AgMag
Article
Tuesday, August 28, 2018

America’s drinking water is under threat from a formidable foe: polluted farm runoff, which contaminates the tap water supplies for millions of people, especially in rural areas.

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AgMag
Article
Friday, August 10, 2018

Outbreaks of potentially toxic algae are rising sharply this summer in lakes, rivers and streams in the U.S., according to EWG’s ongoing tracking of algae outbreaks.

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AgMag
Article
Friday, June 29, 2018

Millions of people could be exposed to potentially toxic algae blooms this July Fourth holiday.

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AgMag
Article
Tuesday, May 15, 2018

In 2014, Toledo was the first U.S. city where a toxic algal bloom made tap water unsafe to drink. But it may not be last, says a new report by the Environmental Working Group.

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News Release
Wednesday, April 18, 2018

A new report from the Environmental Working Group reveals that the U.S. Department of Agriculture is failing to enforce a key farm bill provision, with dire consequences for drinking water in the Midwest.

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News Release
Wednesday, April 18, 2018

The 1985 federal farm bill created a conservation compact between farmers and taxpayers. In return for generous farm subsidies, farmers agreed to take steps to cut erosion and polluted runoff from their most vulnerable cropland, and to not drain wetlands unless they mitigated the loss.

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Reports & Consumer Guides
Thursday, February 1, 2018

Northwest Illinois is one of the nation’s most productive corn-growing regions. But the heavy use of fertilizer and manure on corn fields leads to nitrate pollution in many communities’ tap water, according to a new report from the Environmental Working Group.

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News Release
Thursday, February 1, 2018

In December 2015, the 1,500 residents of Erie, Ill., received a warning that the community’s tap water should not be given to babies under 6 months old, or used to mix formula or juice for those infants.

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Reports & Consumer Guides
Thursday, January 11, 2018

The Raccoon River in central Iowa runs through one of the most intensely farmed regions of the nation. Agriculture is vital to the area’s economy, but polluted runoff from farms poses an acute threat to residents’ tap water – and a daunting challenge to utilities struggling to keep the water clean.

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Reports & Consumer Guides
Thursday, January 11, 2018

In 2015, Des Moines Water Works sued upstream counties to reduce manure and fertilizer runoff into the city’s drinking water supply, drawing attention to nitrate pollution. But nitrate contaminates water supplies throughout Iowa, according to a new report by the Environmental Working Group.

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News Release
Thursday, November 9, 2017

Despite years of asking for help from Iowa state officials and Big Ag, river pollution – particularly from nitrates, which are toxic byproducts of fertilizer and manure – is only getting worse and costlier to remedy.

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