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Two disembodied hands reach for the sky, in between endless rows of corn.
Photo by Felix Russell-Saw on Unsplash.

How long could you suspend your need for fresh, clean water? If the Flint water crisis is any indication, not long at all. Leaded pipes, however, aren’t the only danger to our vital water supply. In America’s agricultural heartland, there’s a long fight simmering between city residents who need a safe municipal water source, and the farmers whose crops of corn and soy feed our industrial food system. Both needs – food and water – are critical for life, but whose interests will be served most directly, and more importantly, how can we accommodate everyone in a way that won’t destroy our resource base?

What’s poisoning the water in Iowa? Nitrates. Industrial farming relies on the application of synthetic fertilizers to support lush growth, especially on soil that’s eroded and rendered inert from extended conventional agricultural exploitation. In 2008, the Haber process, which creates ammonia used in synthetic fertilizer, consumed about 5% of all the natural gas extracted worldwide. Farmers in Iowa, who produce more corn than any other state in the nation (and come in second for soy production), use synthetic fertilizer because it’s a quick and easy solution. The crops only absorb about half of the nitrogen in the fertilizer, though, allowing the rest of the nutrients to wash away in the rain and snowmelt.

Nitrogen converts to nitrate in river water, and eventually goes on to create dead zones in our oceans. (The 2016 dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico, a direct result of corn and soy farming in the heartland, was the largest on record.) On the way to the sea, though, nitrate-rich river water flows near cities and towns which depend upon it as their source of drinking water.

High nitrate levels in drinking water aren’t good for anyone. It’s associated with birth defects, cancer, thyroid problems, and even blue-baby syndrome, since nitrates can inhibit the blood’s ability to carry oxygen. In 2011, water utilities in the U.S. spent $4.8 billion to remove nitrates from municipal drinking water. William “Bill” Stowe, general manager of the Des Moines Water Works, understands this problem deeply. From 1995 to 2014, the nitrates in his utility’s water intake on the Raccoon River in Iowa exceeded federal standards 24% of the time, requiring him to spend $1.5 million in 2015 alone, just to provide safe drinking water for the city of Des Moines, with another $15 million equipment upgrade in the works.

Fooling Ourselves, posted by the Environmental Working Group (EWG).

Stowe filed a lawsuit against three upstream agricultural districts in 2016, claiming that the thousands of perforated drainage pipes which allowed over-fertilized fields to drain straight into waterways constituted identifiable, “point” sources of pollution that should be regulated under the Clean Water Act. The lawsuit was dismissed by a federal judge, since agricultural drainage districts are immune from suits seeking monetary damages, and agricultural runoff, even from specific farms, is considered a “non-point” source of pollution, too unidentifiable to be regulated at all.

Going forward, too, the Trump/Pruitt EPA is seeking to delay and weaken Obama era clean water protections that would have extended federal jurisdiction upstream from main waterways into contributing streams and wetlands, making it easier to find and clean up pollution before it got to the rivers. With the current deregulatory agenda, it’s hard to see how the EPA will meet its goal of reducing nutrient-rich runoff by 20% by 2025.

Two factors make this situation even worse.

First, there are multiple safe ways to solve the nitrate problem right on the farm. Cover crops, buffer zones, engineered wetlands, and woodchip filters could remove excess nitrogen from runoff before it even reaches a waterway. However, the farmers generally won’t do these things, because doing so is more expensive than not doing them, and short of weak state and federal subsidies, there is generally no financial incentive for farmers to care how much nitrogen runs off of their land and into waterways. Suits like Bill Stowe’s, which would have imposed a financial cost on farmers who don’t clean up their messes (and therefore the needed financial incentive to behave responsibly), are dismissed. Hoping most farmers will adopt these practices voluntarily isn’t really working. The people downstream are left to pay for it all.

Second, the nation’s corn and soy crops aren’t generally used for the products that make us healthy. 12% of the corn crop is fed to refineries that break it up into starches and sugars, creating the high-fructose corn syrup and cheap carbohydrates fueling the obesity and diabetes epidemics. Another 40% of the corn is made into ethanol, feeding gas tanks instead of people. Soybeans also become unhealthy processed food (like vegetable oil), and animal feed mostly headed to China.

So, what are we getting in exchange for poisoned drinking water? Corn syrup, industry, and exports. It’s not a sustainable system: not for soil, not for water, and certainly not for people. Unsustainable situations are, by definition, bound to break down at some point, but the modern industrial economy has incredible inertia. Which part will break down first, and how soon with the rest go down with it?

Related: Farmer Suicides Rising, but There’s Hope

Sources:

New York to sue EPA over Obama water rule delay
Trump administration rolls back Obama’s Clean Water Act
The Simple River-Cleaning Tactics That Big Farms Ignore
The Trouble with Iowa: Corn, corruption, and the presidential caucuses
Federal judge dismisses Des Moines Water Works’ lawsuit
The Haber-Bosch Reaction: An Early Chemical Impact On Sustainability
Gulf of Mexico dead zone is “largest” ever recorded in U.S.
Controversial Des Moines Water Works Lawsuit Calls For Farmers to Clean Up Drinking Water

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