The New York Times reported this week that nitrate contamination of private wells in agricultural regions around the Midwest is turning water quality and agricultural regulations into focal points of many local and statewide elections.
In communities surrounding the agricultural regions of Wisconsin, Iowa, and beyond, private wells are failing water quality standards, often by a wide margin, with nitrate pollution from land applications of manure and fertilizer use being blamed. Some residents are pointing fingers at their Republican-led legislators and state agencies, who’s pro-industry policies have enabled, if not encouraged, large-scale industrial farming operations via tax incentive packages and loosened environmental regulations and oversight.
The Times story features the dairy-rich region of central Wisconsin. One resident whose home is next to a field fertilized by manure injection sums it up this way: “The regulations favor agriculture…When they keep cutting enforcement and people, there’s nobody to keep track of what’s happening.”
Given that there is no formal system in place for surveying private wells, it is hard to say exactly how many wells are contaminated. The Wisconsin DNR estimates that 6% of the state’s 676,000 private wells may exceed federal standards for nitrates. And some exceed them by a lot – one family near a 3,000 cow dairy found their water tested at 45 parts per million – that’s 4.5 times the federal health limit on nitrates of 10 ppm.
Unlike bacterial contamination, nitrates can’t be shocked out of the water system with a heavy dose of chlorine. Getting the water clean in rural areas where homes are dependent on private wells can be complicated and expensive, so much so that some people choose to simply move rather than tackling the challenge. Fortunately, some farm cooperatives in Wisconsin are stepping up to help rural neighbors affected by nitrate pollution.
One consequence of all this is that many Red state voters are heading to the polls with water quality and environmental regulation on their minds. Plus, some candidates are making it a key issue in their campaign, and some voters are “hearing more about water than Donald Trump.” It’s particularly important topic in Wisconsin, where Republican Scott Walker is up for a fourth term and locked in a surprisingly close contest.
The New York Times piece does not settle whether renewed focus on water quality issues in some mostly Midwestern states is the beginning of a cultural shift in which environmental policies will be taken more seriously by politicians, or just a flash in the pan. We will have to wait and see…
Jack Healy, “Rural America’s Own Private Flint: Polluted Water Too Dangerous to Drink,” The New York Times, November 3, 2018, Date Accessed: 11/05/2018.