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The Trickle-Down Effect of Agriculture in Iowa

Though only a five-minute drive from the city center, Des Moines Water Works feels a world away from the bustle and sprawl of Iowa’s largest city. Surrounded by verdant woods, the utility’s main campus sits beside the Raccoon River, which snakes through nearly two and a half square miles of parkland to meet the Des Moines River on the south side of the city. Together, the rivers supply drinking water to over half a million people in and around Des Moines.

I visited Water Works in June 2021 at the peak of a two-week heat wave. The chief executive officer, Ted Corrigan, and external affairs manager Jennifer Terry met me near the entrance of the facility. Both were polite if a bit distracted. The withering heat had them on edge—not because the temperature made them uncomfortable but because of its effect on the city’s water supply. We began our tour in a fluorescent lab, where a researcher pointed to a sample of water taken that morning from the Raccoon River. It was dusky green, sludgy, and clouded.

Owing to a dry year, water levels in the Raccoon River were at 10 percent of their normal volume. Meanwhile, the Des Moines River was having its own problems. Corrigan and Terry were waiting for the results of a test that would determine whether the river water was contaminated with microcystin, a dangerous algae-born toxin. Water Works was running the test three times a day, and the staff’s nerves were worn thin. If high levels were detected, they would have to depend solely on the dangerously low Racoon River. In the worst-case scenario of both rivers testing positive for microcystin, they would have to ramp up production at two other treatment plants, resort to their limited supply of groundwater, or rely on enhanced treatments to the river water and pray that contaminated water hadn’t already made it to taps.

High levels of nitrate, a nitrogen compound that is harmful to human health, have become a problem nearly year-round.

For decades, water supplies in agricultural regions, which are routinely contaminated by large amounts of fertilizer and manure, have been plagued with algae blooms and the presence of other harmful organisms. For nearly three days in August 2014, Toledo, Ohio, ordered a full tap shutoff because of toxins produced by algae. In 1993, Milwaukee’s water supply was contaminated by the parasite cryptosporidium, sickening 400,000 and killing 69. “This is serious business,” Terry told me, drawing her glasses down her nose to look at me. “It’s not ‘will there be another Toledo?’ It’s ‘when?’ And we don’t want it to be us.”

Algal blooms are hardly the only pollutant Des Moines Water Works must handle. High levels of nitrate, a nitrogen compound that is harmful to human health, have become a problem nearly year-round. In early spring, levels in the water supply begin to spike when the snowpack thaws out and manure and fertilizer in the soil run into the rivers, helped along by spring rains. This coincides with planting season, which deposits even more nitrogen into the soil. In the fall, when the algae blooms die off, nitrate levels rise again (algae consume nitrates).

A Des Moines native, Corrigan has worked at the utility for 31 years. Volatility has always been part of the job. “The thing that struck me when I came here was, wow, the quality of the source water changes like hourly,” he told me. “You gotta be on your toes, because there are so many potential challenges, and they’re coming at you on a daily basis.”

When nitrate levels get too high, and there are no other feasible water sources, Water Works runs state-of-the-art nitrate-removal equipment at a cost of $10,000 per day. In 2015, 177 days of removal cost $1.4 million. But the system is overburdened by a cascade of contaminants, and Water Works is scrambling to shore up its response, spending $30 million to build new wells that draw shallower, safer groundwater, expanding capacity for winter storage, and beefing up treatment capacity in new plants. “We’re trying to stay ahead of it,” Corrigan said, “but every time we turn around, there’s a new wrinkle, something else we have to build our way out of or deal with.”

New investments are already becoming obsolete. “Our drought source, Saylorville Reservoir, which we paid millions of dollars to have upsized, is now contaminated with microcystin every time we have a drought, and we can’t use it,” Corrigan said. “That’s an enormous frustration to us.”

Along with algal blooms and nitrate loads, a complicated stew of chemicals used by the state’s agriculture industry is making its way into water sources, with little understanding yet of the chemicals’ full effects on public health. Meanwhile, climate change is bringing more extreme fluctuations between rain and drought. Warmer, wetter weather is more hospitable to algae. Drought and flooding, which are happening more often and with more intensity, operate as a vicious one-two punch: Drought concentrates nitrogen in soil, and heavy rains flush contaminants into waterways.

The weekend after my tour, rain finally arrived, easing the water shortage. For the staff at Des Moines Water Works, the reprieve was temporary. Drought conditions persisted into the fall, and experts feared the result would be nitrate levels of historic proportions come spring. In the face of ever increasing, myriad threats, there’s only so much that a beleaguered water utility can do. Sooner or later, Iowans will have to reckon with the fact that if they want clean drinking water, they’re going to have to tackle the pollution at its source.

Drought concentrates nitrogen in soil, and heavy rains flush contaminants into waterways. Here, a river with low levels of water flows near Bondurant, Iowa. (Photo credit: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

It’s hard to imagine the Iowa landscape as it existed only 150 years ago. The native ecology of the prairie was a dynamic, incessant conversation among high grasslands, river floodplains, and the woodland savannas that mediated the two. Vast wetlands served as an intercontinental outpost for avian migration. It all amounted to one of the most diverse, abundant, and complex ecosystems in North America.

Beginning in 1804, American settlers used war, deception, and broken agreements to decimate and exile Iowa’s Native communities—the largest group was known as the Ioway—to Kansas and Nebraska. By the 1860s, the young state was dominated by white colonizers, who drained, cleared, and excavated the land for its rich topsoil. To make the soil suitable for row cropping, farmers constructed drainage tiles—essentially underground pipes—to dry out fields, creating a direct conduit into waterways and accelerating their erosion.

After World War II, synthetic fertilizers became widely available and affordable, and farmers began liberally applying them to their fields. Excess phosphorus and nitrogen seeped into groundwater and flowed through the drainage pipes into streams, setting in motion the disruption of the largest watershed in North America.

In 1945, a doctor in Iowa City noticed two cases of then-novel “blue baby syndrome,” a condition suffered by infants that can be fatal. Researchers eventually tied the syndrome, which was occurring at elevated rates throughout the Midwest, to infant formula mixed with well water that was contaminated with high levels of nitrates. Once the cause was determined, cases gradually declined, but the episode served as an early warning about the potential health effects of nutrient pollution.

In 1974, the EPA set a standard for nitrate concentration in drinking water at 10 milligrams per liter. Nearly two decades later, Des Moines Water Works constructed the most expensive nitrate-removal facility in the world (at the time) to meet that standard. Since then, increasing evidence has pointed to serious health issues related to nitrate levels far lower than the EPA standard. Levels below 10 mg/l have been shown to lower blood oxygen in adults and increase the risk of miscarriages, low birthweight, preterm birth, and birth defects. Numerous cancers have also been linked to low levels of nitrate exposure.

If the EPA adopted a 5 mg/l drinking water standard for nitrate, public water utilities across Iowa would have to invest in nitrate removal, an unmanageable expense for all but Des Moines. Most of Iowa’s other cities don’t have facilities equipped to do it, and in a typical town, the investment would practically double the cost of water treatment. Private wells, the predominant water source in agricultural areas, have the highest nitrate concentrations in the state. But, except for a handful of local health boards, no government authority performs monitoring of any kind.

Watkins first started thinking about the health effects of poor water quality in the early 2000s, when both of his children were born with rare, nonheritable birth defects.

Nitrate pollution in Iowa’s drinking water has been well documented for decades, but rather than respond meaningfully to the crisis, present-day agricultural practices in Iowa have exacerbated it. The state’s massive farm sector produces millions of acres of row crops, mostly corn and soybeans. Because fertilizer is cheap, farmers tend to use more than necessary—on average, 30 pounds per acre more than Iowa State University says is optimal for maximum yield, or about 15 percent extra. There are no state or federal regulations stipulating how much synthetic fertilizer farmers can apply to their soil.

The state also raises millions of hogs, turkeys, chickens, and cattle in prefab metal sheds or open-air feedlots that pepper the countryside by the thousands. Manure—equivalent in volume to the excrement of 134 million humans—collects in pits and lagoons that have to be emptied regularly, often by spreading the waste on nearby cropland. It inevitably makes its way into the watershed, where it contributes to high nitrate levels along with pathogen contamination. Farmers have used manure as fertilizer for thousands of years, but with concentrated livestock populations, the sheer volume of waste overwhelms ecosystems. Widespread mismanagement—including spreading manure on frozen ground, where it sits until spring rains wash it into the nearest stream—is common.

The ecological consequences of this wholesale pollution of watersheds extend far beyond farm states. In 1972, scientists identified the Gulf of Mexico hypoxia—a so-called dead zone of algae-choked water that failed to support aquatic life, attributed to runoff from the Mississippi River. By 1997, the EPA established a task force to coordinate a response among state, tribal, and federal entities. Initially, eight states came to the table, but one was most responsible for the dead zone: Iowa. Even though the state has just 4.5 percent of the land area in the greater Mississippi watershed, it contributes about 30 percent of the nitrogen to the Gulf of Mexico. In 2015, the task force set a goal to reduce the Gulf hypoxia to about 2,000 square miles by 2035. Over the past five years, it has averaged close to triple that size. Last summer, it grew to around 6,334 square miles, larger than the state of Connecticut.

Seth Watkins’s farmhouse sits on a steep hill, surrounded by slanted knolls and wooded gullies. We took shelter from the heat in the air-conditioned cab of his pickup, rumbling along dirt roads to the various plots his family has maintained or acquired since his great-grandfather settled here in 1848.

Watkins first started thinking about the health effects of poor water quality in the early 2000s, when both of his children were born with rare, nonheritable birth defects. After his second child went into surgery as a newborn, a nurse said to him, “We see you farm for a living. Where does your family get their water?”

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