Farm Runoff Causing Widespread Drinking Water Pollution in Midwest

New farm bill needs stricter conservation requirements

AMES, Iowa – 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.

“Farmers made a deal with taxpayers in 1985 to prevent soil erosion and polluted runoff in return for billions of dollars in farm subsidies,” said Craig Cox, EWG’s Vice President of Agriculture and Natural Resources. “But this ‘conservation compact’ has languished, and as a result, the water and health of millions of Americans are at risk.”

In a “conservation compact” made between farmers and taxpayers in 1985, farmers agreed to prevent soil erosion and polluted runoff from their most vulnerable cropland in return for billions of dollars in farm subsidies.   

The compact was remarkably successful, cutting erosion and runoff on 100 million acres of highly erodible land by an estimated 40 percent.

But 30 years later, an EWG investigation using satellite imagery has found excessive erosion and runoff on highly erodible land covered by the compact in four Midwestern states. The damage is even worse on cropland not covered by the compact.

When it rains, small channels called ephemeral gullies form along the drainage pathways that water follows as it flows off fields. The gullies act like pipelines, funneling fertilizers, manure, sediment and other farm pollutants into waterways and aquifers, resulting in widespread drinking water contamination. Simple practices like protecting the pathways with strips of grass prevent gullies.

Yet EWG found that 60 percent of the pathways on highly erodible land covered by the compact in Minnesota, Indiana, Iowa and Illinois were unprotected, and nearly half were scarred by gullies – clear evidence that even the minimal current requirements are not being met. The situation is even worse on land not covered by the contract, where 80 percent of the pathways were unprotected.

“After 30 years, it’s more than fair to ask farmers to do more to prevent pollution in return for the generous support they get from taxpayers,” Cox said.

Nitrates from fertilizers and manure that end up in drinking water increase the risk of colon, kidney, ovarian and bladder cancers. Phosphorus triggers algal blooms that react with disinfectant chemicals water utilities use, forming harmful byproducts like trihalomethanes, or TTHMs.

Drinking tap water contaminated with TTHMs increases the risk of developing bladder cancer in humans. In animal studies, TTHMs are also associated with liver, kidney and intestinal tumors. And studies suggest that TTHMs increase the risk of problems during pregnancy, including miscarriage, cardiovascular defects, neural tube defects and low birth weight.

EWG’s 2017 “Trouble in Farm Country” report revealed that drinking water in 1,683 mostly rural communities is high in nitrates, while TTHMs are high in 1,647.

EWG has proposed a new conservation compact for the 2018 Farm Bill that would require farmers and landowners applying for and receiving federal subsidies to implement conservation practices that protect drinking water. To stay eligible for subsidies, farmers and landowners should at least prevent or heal ephemeral gullies, and keep a buffer of at least 50 feet between cropland and waterways.

“Enacting a stronger, more rigorously implemented conservation compact is an important step toward clean, safe drinking water, and would protect the health of millions of Americans,” Cox said.

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