Rural Iowans Bear Brunt of Water Treatment Costs for Nitrate Pollution from Farms and CAFOs

Published Jan 14, 2021

DES MOINES, Iowa (January 14, 2021)—Iowans will be on the hook for up to $333 million over the next five years to remove nitrates polluting the state’s drinking water supplies and threatening public health, according to a study released today by the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS). The application of nitrogen fertilizer on Iowa farms has increased about 15 percent on average across counties over the past forty years. Coupled with the poor handling of livestock manure on confined animal feeding operations (CAFO), nitrogen pollution has degraded Iowa’s drinking water quality and led to a per capita increase in federal violations of the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) drinking water regulations.

The study found that nearly all the violations of the EPA’s nitrate limit in Iowa last year occurred in small, usually rural, water systems serving fewer than 3,300 people. Nitrates are found in the fertilizers used on Iowa farms. Drinking water with high nitrate levels is associated with increased risk of thyroid and bladder cancers, birth defects and other serious health problems, especially among pregnant women and infants. In Iowa, an estimated 300 cases of cancer each year can be attributed to nitrate exposure in drinking water.

“Removing nitrates through water treatment is costly for local and state agencies and unaffordable for many private well owners,” said Dr. Rebecca Boehm, the study author and economist at UCS. “Especially in counties like Delaware and Storm Lake, the impact of nitrogen losses from farms and livestock operations can be seen, smelled and felt in Iowans’ wallets.”

According to the analysis, rural Iowans can pay as much as $1,200 per person per year for nitrate treatment of drinking water while urban Iowans only pay $2 per person per year. Because smaller drinking water systems must recoup capital and operational costs of treatment facilities from fewer customers, water systems in rural areas and private well owners pay much more for nitrate removal than Iowans living in larger, urban areas.

“Clean water is not optional,” said Boehm. “Nitrates must be removed from Iowa’s drinking water supply and it’s unfair that the cost of doing so is being paid disproportionately by rural residents.”

In addition to seeping into groundwater and flowing into local waterways, nitrogen pollution from farms and CAFOs finds its way into the rivers and lakes where Iowans swim and fish and to communities downstream where excess nitrogen damages local fishing economies and fuels the Gulf of Mexico dead zone. According to an earlier UCS analysis, upstream nitrogen pollution from Midwest farms has contributed to up to $2.4 billion in damages to fisheries and marine habitat in the Gulf of Mexico every year since 1980.

To reduce the amount of nitrogen that runs off farmland and leads to high water treatment costs, the UCS study recommends farmers adopt science-based farm practices that build healthy soil. Healthy soil soaks up water like a sponge and reduces nitrogen run-off. Practices include using cover crops and shifting to integrated livestock and crop production. The report calls for Iowa legislators to allocate funds to inform farmers, landowners, lenders and farm managers about healthy soil practices, manure management and water pollution. UCS also suggests the state’s livestock industry and regulatory framework be reformed to reduce pollution from CAFOs.

“In the short term, these farming methods will benefit the local environment, improve the health of people and ecosystems downstream and reduce water treatment costs,” said Boehm. “Over the long term, building up soil health will also improve farmers’ resilience as they face increased floods and drought.”