Ag-Related Nitrate Common in Small Town Water Supplies, Says New EWG Report

by Robin Madel


Back in August we wrote about Environmental Working Group’s (EWG’s) new Drinking Water Database which allows you to enter your zip code to find your water system and lists all of the contaminants in your drinking water.

Nitrates Are Harming Farm Country Water Supplies

According to a new report just out by EWG, the drinking water supplies for millions of people living in farm country are compromised because of a pollutant associated with agriculture: nitrate. Excessive nitrates in water are harmful for ecosystems because they spawn harmful algal blooms that suck up oxygen in water to form “dead zones” that extinguish or force out aquatic life. In addition, excessive nitrate levels in infants can cause the potentially deadly “blue baby syndrome.”

According to EWG, “Drinking water supplies for more than 200 million Americans in 49 states have some level of nitrate contamination, but the highest levels are found in small towns surrounded by row-crop agriculture.” Agricultural areas are particularly susceptible to pollution from nitrates due to heavy application of synthetic nitrogen fertilizer and manure to farm fields, which then runs off into drinking water sources.

EWG sampled almost 50,000 local water utilities in all 50 states and found that “more than 1,600 systems serving small towns have (nitrate) levels about 5 parts per million.” EPA’s legal limit for nitrate is 10 parts per million, but National Cancer Institute studies have found that a nitrate concentration of 5 parts per million is associated with an increase in the risk of colon, kidney, ovarian and bladder cancers.

According to the report, the states most affected by nitrate pollution include Arizona, California, Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas.

How to Reduce Nitrate Pollution

There are conservation methods that can be put in place to control the movement of agriculture-related nitrates into drinking water sources, for example planting cover crops and barrier rows to prevent fertilizer-laden runoff from reaching water ways. Nevertheless, the problem of agriculture-related nitrate pollution is a complex one and will require the nation’s tens of thousands of farmers — who are mostly exempt from state and federal water quality rules – to collectively change how they farm.

Incentives from the government help, and in fact the EWG has another useful database that highlights USDA spending on its conservation programs for farmers. Unfortunately, EWG says that the database reveals a “stunning under-investment” in the programs intended to protect drinking water. With disheartening conclusions drawn from an examination of both databases, EWG makes specific recommendations in its new report for 2018 Farm Bill funding and requirements so that all farmers and landowners can improve their conservation practices.

In the meantime, if after using the EWG’s Drinking Water database you find that nitrate is present in your drinking water, here is a list of steps you can take to help control the problem until the source is removed.

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