New ISU report highlights costs of nutrient pollution across Iowa

posted by Jennifer Terry on Monday, February 19, 2018

A new report, “The Economic Benefits of Nitrogen Reductions,” by economists with the Center for Agricultural and Rural Development (CARD) at Iowa State University makes the case that reducing nutrient pollution would have economic benefits all across Iowa.

The report looks at how local communities could benefit from increased funding and effective policies to improve water quality.

According to one of the reports lead authors, Gabriel Lade, the focus of Iowa’s Nutrient Reduction Strategy (INRS) is the Gulf of Mexico, however, this report highlights how meeting the INRS targets would help Iowans in important ways here at home.

Drinking water

The report weighs the economic impact of nitrate pollution to water supplies across the state. Out of the state’s 1,850 public water supplies, 49 systems, serving over 10 percent of the state’s citizens, must now treat water for nitrates either by blending or using nitrate removal equipment. While the costs vary widely, the authors conclude that “many small Public Water Supplies cannot afford to meet EPA safe drinking water standards for nitrates.”

This is a big problem, since 70 percent of the state’s Public Water Supplies fit this description. The report uses case studies from towns like Bristow, Lewis, Manchester and Waterloo, and the money spent to address rising nitrate pollution in their water sources.

The study also discusses the challenges of 230,000 Iowans who rely on unregulated and often untested private wells for their drinking water. According to the report, the trend for private wells with unsafe levels of nitrate statewide has been increasing: from 9-12 percent in the period 2001-2007, to 13-18 percent in 2015-2016. In some areas of the state that rely on vulnerable shallow wells, up to 25 percent of wells may exceed the safe nitrate level.  

What this means: Rural communities are given an unfair burden. The report makes it clear that nutrient pollution costs drinking water customers beyond central Iowa -- and most affected communities have far fewer resources to pay for expensive treatment options than here in Des Moines. Moreover, the report also points out that we often pay for pollution multiple times, since most nitrate treatment systems remove the nitrate, then must discharge it back into streams. It makes a strong case for addressing our water pollution problems at the source, and not sending them downstream where other communities and families must bear the burden.

Recreational waters

Beyond drinking water, the report estimates that Iowa is losing more than $30 million per year in revenue due to impaired natural resources like public lakes and beaches. Nutrient pollution contributes to the development of harmful algal blooms from noxious forms of algae that discourages visitors and can be harmful to human and animal health. CARD has led several studies quantifying these impacts, which the new report draws upon and supports.

What this means: At this point, many Iowans will travel farther to find cleaner, more attractive places to take their families and to find better fishing. These losses are real for local communities and businesses, as well as a loss to local quality of life.

Health costs

The CARD researchers also discuss costs related to adverse human health impacts from elevated nitrate levels in drinking water, although more research is needed to further investigate the relationships between nitrate exposure and health, and resulting costs to communities. These health concerns include increased risks for bladder cancer and birth defects, with some shown risk at levels below the drinking water standard.

What this means: Of course, as the report’s authors acknowledge, agriculture is an important industry in Iowa with tremendous benefits. But even so, why shouldn’t agriculture have the same responsibility to address and prevent pollution as part of regular business practices? Clearly, the existing system that depends completely on a voluntary approach is not working —and we’re all paying the price.

About The Author

Jennifer served as Executive Director of the Iowa Environmental Council from 2017 - 2020. Jennifer is a native Iowan, raised on a dairy farm in north central Iowa where she developed a passion for protecting Iowa’s land and water. After a career in the healthcare industry, Jennifer returned ... read more