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The Wall Street Journal published a stinging critique of big agriculture’s impact on rural drinking water supplies, which they say are being spoiled “by fewer, more-intensively worked farms, bigger cows and shifting crop mixes.” These large farms are more productive than ever, but as a result, the percentage of U.S. drinking water with nitrates concentrations above safe levels is rising.One in seven Americans whose water comes from wells is at risk, particularly in rural areas. But urban areas are also contending with nitrate pollution — nearly 500 public water systems in the U.S. exceeded federal nitrate limits in 2016, according to Environmental Protection Agency data. Runoff from farms is largely exempt from federal regulation, particularly after the Trump Administration’s rollback of a major clean water act rule.
manure, which farmers spread across millions of acres in the U.S., contains nutrients such as nitrates that researchers have associated with birth defects, thyroid problems, cancer and a potentially fatal condition in infants; and
decades-old water, already contaminated with nitrates from a nationwide run-up in chemical-fertilizer usage, is sinking closer to drinking water aquifers in some areas.
The most interesting statistic — milk production per cow more than doubled between 1970 and 2017, according to the USDA. Farmers are growing less alfalfa to feed their animals and more corn, which requires more nitrogen fertilizer. Cows today are bigger than in the past, so they eat—and excrete—more. And farmers mix that cow poop with wastewater and increasingly use it for crop fertilizers — spreading the nitrate problem even further.
Often it is small water systems that end up paying the price for big farms upstream. “It’s a broken system,” Bill Stowe, chief executive of Des Moines Water Works told the Journal after his system lost a federal lawsuit in 2017 in which they tried to force three counties to clean farm runoff draining into the drinking water supply for Des Moines.
One solution is to plant cover crops such as oats and clover to soak up nutrients and put organic material back into the soil. Another one is to use tree bark to filter nitrates from water flowing from fields into culverts that lead to large lakes and rivers — in essence creating a man-made wetland to mitigate nutrient runoff.
Why This Matters: We have a clean water problem in this country and much of it is caused by agricultural practices that shift the cost of their pollution to rural neighbors and even to big city residents, whose drinking water is tainted as a result. This is not fair. And the Trump Administration’s de-regulatory policies make a bad problem worse. This is not about burdening small farmers with regulations — it is about getting big ag to pay for the mess they are making.
As California’s drought conditions are worsening, Nestle is pumping millions of gallons of water from the San Bernardino forest. State water officials have drafted a cease-and-desist order to force the company to stop overpumping from Strawberry Creek, which provides drinking water for about 750,000 people.
The ice-out date for Maine’s Lake Auburn is now three weeks earlier than it was two centuries ago, the Portland Press Herald reports, and other lakes across New England show similar trends. Climate change is not good for ice, and that includes Maine’s lakes that freeze over every winter.
Why This Matters: A disrupted winter with lakes that “defrost” earlier has multiple knock-on effects for freshwater: in addition to harming fish in lakes, the resulting large cyanobacteria algae blooms that form can be harmful to human health.
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