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A Sickening Swill

Iowans don't want runoff from factory farms coming out of their faucets. So it’s about time the government does something about it.

Iowans are facing a water quality crisis.  (Photo: Lynn Betts | USDA NRCS via flickr)

Thanks to the state’s huge agriculture industry, Iowa’s waterways already have some of the highest nitrate levels in the country, and last month, two rivers that supply Des Moines with drinking water reached levels deemed dangerous by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Since then the utility has had to mix river water with cleaner groundwater to meet safety standards. This can get pricey, and when the nitrate levels are really bad, the waterworks has to turn on its $4.1 million nitrogen-filtration facility—the largest in the country—which costs up to $10,000 a week to run. This happens a lot, and through their water bills, Iowans have been picking up the tab for Big Ag’s pollution.

“We’ve tried partnering with the agriculture community. We’ve pleaded with them,” says Bill Stowe, CEO and general manager of Des Moines Water Works. “Clearly nothing’s working here.”

Now the utility may sue the state for violating the Clean Water Act by failing to set farm and sewage pollution limits. The EPA considers waterways with nitrate levels over 10 parts per million a risk to public health. A few weeks ago, the Des Moines and Raccoon rivers reached 12.8 and 13.7 ppm, respectively.

Iowa has 24 million acres of cropland and more than 8,500 factory farms, known as concentrated animal feeding operations, or CAFOs. Together, the CAFOs produce five billion gallons of liquid waste that is spread over land each year to fertilize crops. What’s not absorbed into the ground washes into waterways when it rains.

Farmers can only put manure on fields during a short period between harvest time and when the ground freezes. This year, the freeze came early, and the waste wound up in the Des Moines and Raccoon rivers…and then into the Mississippi, on its way south.


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This isn’t just bad news for fish in the Gulf of Mexico, where the influx of nutrients, which include nitrates and phosphates, from upstream have created a dead zone that stretches for 5,000 square miles. Children who drink high-nitrate water can develop blue baby syndrome, a rare illness where nitrates prevent the blood from carrying oxygen. Though rare, the condition can be potentially fatal for infants and is the reason the EPA set its 10 ppm standard. High nitrate levels are also harmful to pregnant women and can lead to birth defects.

For the last two years, state officials have relied on voluntary efforts by farmers to keep nitrate levels low. But the results have been laughable, and programs incentivizing farmers to keep acres crop-free, and thus reduce runoff, apply to a very small fraction of Iowa’s farmland. Mandatory limits on fertilizer and manure use, however, are not politically appealing in the Corn Belt. For instance, Governor Terry Branstad and Senator-elect Joni Ernst—both supported by the powerful Iowa Farm Bureau—advocate for even fewer regulations on farmers.

Des Moines Water Works isn’t the only group threatening to fight the state over the problem. The Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement, which aims to curb industrial agriculture in the state, is currently petitioning the Iowa Department of Natural Resources to consider CAFOs a form of point-source pollution. This new designation would force factory farms to get discharge permits under the Clean Water Act.

“We need better and stronger regulations, and we need to enforce the ones that are on the books,” says Adam Mason, the ICCI’s state policy director. “Without those, we’re not going to make any headway in addressing Iowans’ water-quality crisis.”

In the meantime, the people of Des Moines will continue to swallow hefty water bills as their utility revs up the ol’ nitrate-stripper and does the farmers’ dirty work.

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Susan Cosier

Susan Cosier
Earthwire's Midwest correspondent, Susan Cosier previously worked at Audubon magazine, and has written for a number of science and environmental publications. She's a graduate of New York University's science journalism program.

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