WASHINGTON, April 12, 2012- The Environmental Working Group (EWG) released a study today linking farming practices to potential drinking water contamination. The group used its collection of various water assessment studies to craft recommendations for the next Farm Bill.
“Agricultural pollution, largely unregulated, is endangering vast quantities of drinking water by overloading surface water and groundwater sources with nutrients,” states the study.
The report focused on Illinois, Iowa, Minnesota and Wisconsin. EWG said nutrient overload in surface and groundwater in these states makes nitrate and phosphorus levels higher and algal blooms more frequent compared to national averages.
The EWG report, “TROUBLED WATERS: Farm Pollution Threatens Drinking Water,” cites a 2010 U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) report that found concentrations of nitrate highest in shallow groundwater beneath agricultural lands with a median concentration three times greater than the national background level. The USGS study found that from 1993 to 2003, the proportion of shallow wells in agricultural areas with nitrate exceeding the drinking water standard of 10 mg/L rose from 16 percent to 21 percent, in parallel with increasing fertilizer use.
EWG scientists wrote that the nation’s drinking water is at risk due to agricultural runoff rich with nitrogen and phosphorus. For example, in Iowa, 17 percent of residents were exposed to high nitrate levels in drinking water between 1998 and 2005, the second highest rate in the nation, they wrote. The study used an EPA assessment, which found that between 1998 and 2005, nitrate exceeded the legal limit at least once in each of 2,973 community and non-community water systems serving 16.7 million people.
“Despite these nitrate spikes, many of these systems remained in compliance with federal drinking water regulations because compliance is determined by averaging two samples collected during the monitoring period,” states the study.
The paper also cited a USGS nationwide study, which found nitrate in 72 percent of 2,100 private wells tested between 1991 and 2004.
Information from USDA’s Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) said that in 1994, where States reported sources of impairment, agriculture was a contributing source for 60 percent of the impaired river miles and 50 percent of the impaired lake area--more than any other single source.
“Where agriculture is a source of impairment, the two most prevalent pollutants are sediment and nutrients,” states NRCS. “The key is to reduce pollutant loadings by interrupting the process at the point of availability, detachment, or transport.”
NRCS also reported that nearly 75 percent of farmers have already changed some farming practices to help reduce the delivery of nonpoint source pollutants. Soil erosion and highly erodible lands fell by 40 percent since the 1980’s.
EWG attributes this success to the linkage between federal subsidies and soil conservation measures agreed to in 1985.
In its “Troubled Waters” study, EWG states that Congress should renew this practice in the next Farm Bill. The group’s recommendations for Congress in writing the new Farm Bill include:
Reform Farm Subsidies – Congress should end direct payments and reduce subsidies for farm insurance programs. Lawmakers should help farmers when they suffer deep losses in yields and provide options for them to purchase additional crop and revenue insurance at their own expense.
Renew the Conservation Compact -- Congress should renew the “conservation compliance” provisions of the 1985 farm bill by relinking wetland and soil protection requirements to crop insurance programs. In addition, legislators should require farm businesses that receive subsidies to update their conservation plans and should strengthen the government’s enforcement tools.
Strengthen Conservation Incentive Programs – Congress should strengthen programs that reward farmers who take steps to protect sources of drinking water. In addition to providing adequate funding, Congress should expand “collaborative conservation” tools that award funds to groups of farmers working together to protect drinking water sources. Greater focus should be placed on restoring buffers and wetlands that filter runoff of farm pollutants.
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