Animal waste and fertilizer runoff are two of the largest contributors to water pollution and contamination. Rising productivity on industrial factory farms is single-handedly impairing drinking water supplies across the country, polluting with key culprits like nitrogen, phosphate, insecticides and pesticides.
In the Midwest, Iowa is the leader in U.S. corn and soy production and a major producer of hogs, eggs, cattle and chickens raised in concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs).1
Over 55 percent of the rivers and streams in the state fall short of federal water quality standards and in the greater Des Moines area, the water filtration system that cost more than $4 million to install in 1991, now costs $7,000 a day to run.2
According to environmental journalist Mark Shapiro,3 water prices have risen 10 percent each year to cover the rising cost of filtration, and the system still can’t keep up with a nitrogen in the water supply.
While awaiting the installation of a new filtration system, people in the state have been plagued with an increased risk of cancer4 and birth defects,5 believed to be linked to the nitrogen-contaminated drinking water.
The plight of rural residents dependent on groundwater without city water options was recently covered by the Wall Street Journal, which reported that6 “One in seven Americans drinks from private wells, which are being polluted by contaminants from manure and fertilizer.”
Groundwater Contamination Rising Across America
The high levels of productivity in America’s food system supply has taken a significant toll on the environment. The industry was not designed to protect the very earth it depends upon. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), agriculture is the leading cause of poor water quality.7
The National Water Quality Assessment8 showed pollution from agriculture was the leading source of impairment to water quality, the third largest source of impairment to lakes and the second largest source of impairment to wetlands.
These agricultural activities generally occur in the absence of a conservation plan and are generated from poorly located or managed CAFOs, overgrazing, plowing, and the improper application of fertilizer, according to the EPA.9
These factors affecting groundwater and poorly managed soil can be changed using regenerative farming practices. Unfortunately, the damage caused by industrial farming and CAFOs to water supplies across America is significant, and will take time to recover from.
America’s Polluted Water a Direct Result of Industrial Farming
David Cwiertny, director of the University of Iowa’s Center for Health Effects of Environmental Contamination, says,10 “The worst-kept secret is how vulnerable private wells are to agricultural runoff.”
New York Times national correspondent Jack Healy calls rural America’s polluted water,11 “Their Own Private Flint.” He reported on groundwater contamination in Wisconsin where residents now refuse to drink the water, won’t brush their teeth and dread taking showers.
These fears and frustrations are the result of budget cuts for environmental enforcement, inspections and weakened pollution rules. Among some of the factors producing contaminants are larger industrial factory farms producing larger cows, shifting crop mixes and increasing amounts of waste products.
In Iowa the legislature dismissed bills to block new large-scale hog operations,12 while in Kewaunee County, Wisconsin, a judge allowed Kinnard Farms to expand based on the condition they take steps to prevent contamination, already at high levels based on their current rate of production.13
Spreading Manure Over Thousands of Acres Contributes to Runoff
Groundwater contamination is nearly always the result of human activity and is difficult and expensive to clean up. The depth of groundwater from the surface varies from place to place and is affected by factors such as the depth of the topsoil and cracks found in the bedrock. The EPA recommends testing well water every year for Coliform bacteria, nitrates, total dissolved solids and pH levels.14
EPA testing in Kewaunee found nearly 30 percent of private wells contained bacteria or elevated levels of nitrates. Groundwater is impacted by runoff from fields largely exempted from federal regulation.
This has impacted not only rural water supplies. Close to 500 public water systems have exceeded federal nitrate limits according to EPA data — a 13 percent increase from two decades earlier.15 Scientists believe groundwater contamination could be cut by reducing fertilizer use and reducing the spread of manure across vulnerable fields.
Unfortunately, dairy farmers continue to expand large industrial operations. As noted by Kevin Masarik, groundwater specialist from the University of Wisconsin,16 “it’s unclear where all that manure is going to go, and do we have the tools and oversight in place to make sure it’s done in a good way?”
In Wisconsin, a state-funded report found over 6 percent of the private wells exceeded federal health standards for nitrates.17 In 2016, farmers founded Peninsula Pride Farms to address complaints about dairy farm impact. Among those residents it helped was Erika Balza, who two years earlier had turned on her bathroom faucet only to be met by muddy brown water that smelled like manure.18
Tests revealed her well was contaminated with E. coli and other bacteria. With the help of state funds, they drilled a new well and 18 months later it also tested positive for Coliform bacteria and elevated nitrate levels.19
Results of a published study in 2008 recognized the necessity for a whole approach to treat the impact on the water system as well as drainage and physical modifications to water catchment. According to the author,20 “The implications for the management of agriculture are far more profound than is currently widely realized.”
Agricultural Runoff Spawning Toxic Algae Growth and More
In an effort to get a better sense of how agricultural runoff is affecting water quality, the EPA and U.S. Geological Survey tested 100 streams between Ohio and Nebraska, looking for pesticides and nutrients used in farming. Tests were conducted looking for mercury, livestock hormones and pesticides, including the weed killer glyphosate.21
The results of the study found there are no pristine streams left as the minimum number of pesticides detected in the water at any site reached 28. During the three-month sampling period an average of 54 pesticides were found at each site.
Streams with higher levels of nitrogen and phosphorus found in fertilizer and animal wastes were more likely to have degraded invertebrates and fish communities. Nitrate accounted for the most total nitrogen and was an important stressor identified for fish.22
The devastation in Lake Okeechobee, Florida, that became visible in late 2017 is a representation of the type of damage nitrogen- and phosphorus-rich manure leaking from factory farms can trigger in groundwater. Following a massive hurricane killing nearly 2,500 residents in 1928,23 a dike was built around the lake causing the water to drain east and west via man-made canals and drying up the Everglades.
A combination of phosphorus-rich manure from factory farms and fertilizer-rich water from sugar fields pumped into the lake from the south created a toxic algae bloom that threatens the life in the lake.24
These challenges are not unique. According to the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR), blue-green algae has been present for millions of years, with algal blooms dating back to the 12th century. However, the agency notes,25 “[I]t is possible that the frequency and duration of blooms are increasing in some Wisconsin waters as a result of increased nutrient concentrations.”
This problem has been happening all over the U.S., particularly in agricultural areas where the use of phosphorus-based fertilizers is prolific, as it fuels blue-green algae growth. Another source of phosphorus driving the toxic algae growth to unprecedented levels is glyphosate, the active ingredient in the herbicide Roundup.
Health Risks Associated With Nitrates and Coliform Bacteria
Blasting well water with chlorine to reduce the growth of hazardous microorganisms, as some rural residents have done,26 creates additional health hazards — but there is no easy fix for nitrate contamination. Without a backup city water supply option, many have turned to buying bottled water in an effort to save their health.
To protect residents from infections caused by fecal bacteria contamination, water treatment plants disinfect the water with chlorine and other chemicals. However, those react with organic matter to produce extremely toxic disinfection byproducts (DBPs), which also carry dangerous long-term health hazards.
DBPs may increase your risk of developing bladder cancer and have been associated with liver, kidney and intestinal tumors in animal studies.27 Pregnant women run an increased risk of miscarriage and giving birth to babies with cardiovascular defects, neural tube defects or low birth weight.
Private well water in Iowa was tested in 2016 by Iowa Watch,28 a nonprofit news organization. They estimate 288,000 residents rely on water from private wells. The study tested 28 wells throughout southwest Iowa and found nitrate levels as high as 168 parts per million (ppm) with 11 of the 28 wells registering levels at or above 45 ppm.
The department of public health tested more than 1,700 private wells and found 19 percent at or above the legal limit of 10 ppm. The standard set for nitrate in drinking water was determined nearly 25 years ago to protect infants against methaemoglobinemia, which decreases the ability of the blood to carry oxygen, commonly caused by nitrate in drinking water.29
While the standard has not been reviewed since, recent studies from the National Cancer Institute find nitrate levels at 5 ppm increases the risk of colon, thyroid, ovarian and kidney cancers.30
Regenerative Farming Practices Help Reduce Environmental Impact
As noted, the implications for management have been far more profound than was widely recognized in 2008.31 Using regenerative farming principles can change the outlook for groundwater pollution and reduce the use of heavy pesticides and insecticides.
In my previous article, “How Regenerative Farming Methods Can Restore Ecology and Rebuild Communities,” Will Harris shares how he converted his farm from a conventional farm to a regenerative farm that today has a positive cash flow and supports three families.
The farm no longer uses chemical fertilizers or pesticides and Harris does not till the soil. Organic matter has gone from 0.5 percent to more than 5 percent in 15 years, which is a significant improvement. His farm also boasts the largest bald eagle population in Georgia, a clear indication of the biological health of the farm.
Harris has proven organic and regenerative farming can be done on a large scale that may produce meat with clear, large differences in nutritional content, including higher levels of omega-3 and essential minerals and antioxidants.32
Consider supporting your local organic and regenerative farmers by purchasing their goods at local farmers markets or purchasing your meat and dairy products directly from your local farm. A growing number of homeowners are also converting their yards into edible landscaping using organic and regenerative methods.
If you live in an apartment or have a small yard, consider container growing for some of your produce to reduce the amount you purchase at the grocery store. Certifications to look for, denoting the highest quality foods, grown according to regenerative principles, include Demeter (biodynamic certification) and the American Grassfed Association (AGA) certification.