Rural Iowans Feel the Brunt of Unregulated Ag Pollution


The major role that rural voters played in recent elections has amped up the focus on farm country from politicians and candidates on both sides of the aisle. In the runup to 2020, presidential hopefuls are once again flocking to Iowa, home of the crucial first-in-the-nation caucuses.

Iowa is also ground zero for a growing environmental crisis in farm country: contamination of drinking water from agricultural pollution. But so far, that crisis isn’t getting much attention from presidential candidates.

Last month, for example, at an event in Storm Lake, Iowa, called the Heartland Forum, five Democratic candidates discussed a range of issues including health care, immigration and the break-up of agricultural monopolies. But there was scant mention of water quality:

Now yet another critical water quality issue is emerging. Today EWG and the Iowa Environmental Council are releasing a joint investigation of contamination of the private wells that supply drinking water to an estimated 230,000 to 290,000 Iowans.

Between 2002 and 2017, unsafe levels of nitrate, coliform bacteria and fecal coliform bacteria were found in thousands of wells across the Hawkeye State. Farms are among the main source of the contamination, especially in rural areas.  Almost three-fourths of the private drinking water wells polluted by these contaminants were in rural counties.

Contamination of Iowa’s private wells poses serious health hazards, including elevated risk of cancer and birth defects. Yet no state or federal agency requires testing or regulation of all private wells.

Iowa requires wells to be tested only once, when they are constructed. Private well owners are left to deal with harmful pollutants on their own, despite the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s determination that there is no safe level of coliform or fecal coliform bacteria in drinking water, since these bacteria are indicators of harmful pathogens.

Some Iowans have pinned their hopes for cleaner water on the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy. Now in its sixth year, the effort has lofty goals of limiting farm pollutants from running off fields, but since its focus is based solely on voluntary actions, the strategy is destined to fail.

In neighboring Wisconsin, a sophisticated new analysis of hundreds of polluted wells by the federal Department of Agriculture surprised researchers. According to the Wisconsin State Journal, USDA microbiologist Mark Borchardt said the analysis found that “the highest risk for coliform bacteria was not how near a well was to farm land, but specifically the well’s proximity to a manure storage site.” (That said, a well’s proximity both to crop land and to manure from an animal feeding operation could lead to coliform contamination.)

The report from EWG and the Iowa Environmental Council found that in the 16 years between 2002 and 2017, almost two-thirds of all the wells tested for nitrate or bacteria were tested only once. Only 10 wells out of almost 55,000 were tested every year for nitrate, and only 12 wells were tested every year for bacteria. (The nitrate figure excludes 2014, for which data is inaccurate.)  

Treating well water contaminated with nitrate or bacteria, or digging a new or deeper well to fix the contamination issue, can cost homeowners thousands of dollars. And there is no guarantee that going deeper is a long-term solution: Some well owners literally can’t dig their way out of the problem.

For candidates and lawmakers from both parties, it would seem a political no-brainer at the very least to call for mandatory and well-funded testing of rural wells.  

For lawmakers, a modest step is to fight for funding to go toward fixing contaminated wells, while supporting efforts to amend state law to provide contaminated rural well owners with fair legal recourse. What’s more, to help struggling rural well owners, lawmakers should require farmers to apply best management conservation practices in vulnerable areas and reduce nitrogen application in the hardest-hit areas, such as is required by Minnesota’s proposed Groundwater Protection Rule. Also, the funding from federal agriculture conservation programs should be targeted far more effectively to protect drinking water.  

Access to clean water is a fundamental right. Rural Americans deserve it as much as all other Americans.


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