Environmental awareness will be of the utmost importance in the years ahead, and rural school communities must be at the forefront of what will be increasingly important conversations on how to mitigate climate changed and create a more just environmental landscape.
Leif Saveraid, our Washington, D.C.-based Sustainability Policy Intern, will be examining a variety of environmental policy issues that affect rural regions and communities. This is the first in Leif's series.
Contamination of drinking water with nitrates is a challenge faced by many rural communities in the U.S. Nitrate pollution is an important topic for rural communities because of the human health risks, especially for babies. Mitigating these health risks requires money that represents a substantial burden for rural communities, especially the smallest. The sources of nitrate pollution primarily originate in these same rural communities. While nitrate contamination of drinking water has been regulated by the EPA since 1962, recent studies suggest that it is an increasing problem for some rural communities. While the costs of nitrate pollution are clear, action to resolve it has been hampered by the competing demands faced by rural communities.
Nitrates are a natural form of nitrogen and have many natural and manmade sources. Nitrate from natural sources, like plant decay, occurs at safe levels in some vegetables and in water. However, elevated nitrate levels in water can occur as result of contamination by fertilizer, wastewater, animal feedlots, and septic systems. This contamination can then leech into public and private wells. It can be difficult to pinpoint the exact source of nitrate pollution in wells because of the variety of sources. Once in drinking water, nitrates are a concern for human health. The primary concern surrounding nitrates are that they can cause blue baby syndrome. This is a condition where nitrates prevent oxygen from binding to the blood cells, resulting in a bluish tint to the affected individual. As the name suggests, it primarily affects children under six months of age. In recognition of this, The EPA considers water with nitrate levels of 10 mg/l or higher to be unsafe to drink, and levels above 3 mg/l as being "contaminated" but considered safe for consumption.
Nitrate contamination at lower levels has been linked to increased risk of certain cancers by some studies. This has caused a push to reexamine the limit for safe nitrate contamination, although at the moment there is not a scientific consensus on this.
Concerningly, the Environmental Working Group (EWG) has found that nitrate contamination is increasing in about half of the communities they tracked in the U.S. Smaller rural communities in particular have seen levels rise. This matches state data from Minnesota, which has seen the average level of nitrates in drinking water increase. These trends indicate that nitrate contamination is an increasing problem for rural communities.
There are some ways to mitigate nitrate contamination of a water source. The water can be treated, but this is often prohibitively expensive, especially due to scale in small rural communities.
People often end up drinking bottled water instead. Alternatively, connecting to a larger public system may be an option in some cases. For example, the North Vermillion Community School in Indiana was honored by the EPA for organizing a connection to a town's water system after having to drink bottled water for five years due to the schools well being contaminated. Efforts like this can be backed by the EPA, which has spent 40 billion over the last four years to improve water infrastructure.
However, due to limitations within the Clean Water Act' the ability of the federal government to address this problem is relatively limited. The federal government could take more steps to encourage practices that limit the use of nitrogen fertilizer, such as providing incentives to farmers to institute best management practices. Establishing the ability of the federal government to regulate such sources of pollution would require Congress to pass a law doing so. For a variety of reasons, including the cost-related impacts on many farmers and other private landowners, this is unlikely to happen.
States can also work to regulate nitrate pollution. For example, Minnesota has adopted a Groundwater Protection rule that regulates the application of nitrogen fertilizer at certain times of the year in areas with vulnerable groundwater. Areas with elevated nitrate level are subject to additional voluntary and regulatory planning and restrictions. California has created a dedicated fee to fund programs that help communities deal with and reduce nitrate contamination.
On a local level, education on the dangers of nitrate contaminated water is important. Specific local information is also important, as differences in geology can influence the risk of contamination. Because nitrate pollution is generally local in nature, motivated local communities can take steps to control nitrate pollution. The major difficulty for rural communities is ensuring that local farmers are not negatively affected by efforts to reduce nitrate pollution.
Nitrate pollution will continue to be a significant and growing problem for rural communities. While the national policy conversation is currently dominated by climate change and other high-profile problems, rural communities need sustained actions to reduce nitrate pollution on the national, state, and local levels. Without this the rural communities will continue to struggle with the burden of nitrate pollution, both in cost and health risks.