In much of America’s farm country, nitrate contamination of drinking water, largely caused by polluted runoff from crop fields, poses a serious health risk – and the problem is getting worse, according to an Environmental Working Group analysis of data from 10 states.
Manure Plus Fertilizer Overwhelms Minnesota’s Land and Water
In almost all of Minnesota’s farm counties, the combination of manure plus commercial fertilizer is likely to load too much nitrogen or phosphorus or both onto crop fields, threatening drinking water and fouling the state’s iconic lakes and rivers, according to an Environmental Working Group investigation.
The number of large concentrated animal feeding operations, or large CAFOs, in Iowa increased nearly fivefold in the past two decades, a new study from Environmental Working Group reveals, with almost all of the growth from big hog-feeding operations.
In the summer , millions of lush green acres of corn and soybeans blanket the Midwest. Come fall, many harvesters scrape crop fields until they are black and barren, exposing large swaths of vulnerable land to heavy rains, melting snow and powerful winds. Until the following year’s planting, soils laden with toxic farm chemicals are left to wash downstream, where they may contaminate sources of drinking water
Des Moines Water Works has struggled for years to provide safe drinking water to its customers, battling nitrate contamination from upstream farms. But contamination from agricultural practices may be even worse for the estimated 230,000 to 290,000 Iowans whose drinking water comes from private wells, an investigation by Environmental Working Group and Iowa Environmental Council finds.
Prevention Is the Solution, But Voluntary Actions Fall Short
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.
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.
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.
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.
After a decline in crop prices in 2014 and 2015, the U.S. Department of Agriculture boosted farmers' income by more than $13 billion through two newly enacted subsidy programs. But during the same period, another USDA program paid out nearly as much to “compensate” the same farmers for the same decline in prices. In all, this double-dipping cost American taxpayers almost $23.9 billion.