2016-07-01 India Rajasthan Jaisalmer

What’s Up With Water – Nitrates in Private Wells

Mozambique has suffered two massive cyclones in five weeks, an unprecedented occurrence according to weather experts at the United Nations. An Amnesty International official told the BBC the cyclones were “exactly what climate scientists warned would happen if we continue to warm our planet beyond its limits.” The official stressed the injustice of Mozambique residents bearing the brunt of climate disasters when they have done so little to cause them.

India is in the midst of its massive, 39-day staggered general election, and water is a key issue. Some voters are praising incumbent Prime Minister Narendra Modi for recent improvements in water and sanitation, while others criticize government responses to drought and pollution. One contentious issue is the Ganges River, which Modi pledged to clean up by 2020, and yet it remains heavily polluted.

Iraq’s marshlands, thought to be home to the biblical Garden of Eden and designated as a UNESCO world heritage site, have diminished in recent years due to poor rainfall and upstream dams. Unexpected rainfall in the past several months, however, has helped revive the parched wetlands. Water levels in the marshes are the highest since the marshes were restored in 2003, after the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, who had drained them. Over the dry years, low water levels caused drinking water salinity, lower forage yields for livestock, and fewer types of fish.

In Europe, experts are warning of a rise in wildfires across the continent. An official at the European Forest Fire Information System told the BBC that fires in Europe “are way above average” for this time of year and that “the season is drastically worse than those of the last decade.” The dry winter and ongoing drought have contributed to the increase, and the long-term forecast suggests that things will not be getting better.

River. The Rhine is a key waterway for transporting grains, minerals, and fuel. When fully-loaded cargo vessels cannot navigate shallow waters, shipments are curtailed and freight costs rise.

In Asia, imported plastic waste is flowing toward the countries with the loosest regulations, and there the waste is illegally dumped, burned or buried. That’s according to an environmental report analyzing plastic waste exports and imports. Wealthier countries are sending their recyclable plastic overseas, and countries like Thailand, Malaysia, and Vietnam are importing increasing amounts. The overwhelming surge of plastic waste has led to disposal practices that contaminate water supplies, poison the soil and crops and cause respiratory illnesses.

Australia’s Coalition parties are under scrutiny over $80 million in controversial water buybacks that took place in 2017. According to members of Australia’s Labor party, “top dollar” was given for low-quality floodwater in Queensland. In an effort to tamp down what’s being called the Australian “Watergate” scandal, the Coalition referred the past decade of water buybacks to the auditor general for review.

The Greenland Ice Sheet has lost a staggering amount of freshwater in recent decades. Data show a loss of some 11 quadrillion pounds since 1972, enough to fill 16 trillion bathtubs. A recent analysis shows that the melting is accelerating, with a massive amount of ice lost between 2010 and 2018. If the ice sheet melted completely, it could raise global sea levels by up to 25 feet.

In Mali, a steady trend of warmer, drier weather is making pastoral livliehoods more difficult, but at the same time, satellite technology is helping herders find watering holes more efficiently than ever before. With a mobile phone, herders can see up-to-date information on the locations of watering holes, while also monitoring crop failures and signs of drought.

In the United States,

Communities throughout the Midwestern states are still feeling the effects of recent flooding. Thousands of people are still displaced, and many others are grappling with mold and water damage in their homes. The March flooding caused several billion dollars in damages after the Missouri, the Mississippi, and other waterways overflowed their banks.

Weather and water continue trouble the Midwest, impeding agricultural supplies for the spring planting season. Dozens of barges are stalled hundreds of miles from their destination due to the swollen Mississippi, where river locks have been closed for weeks. Railroads have also been beset by winter woes and flooding, further crimping supplies in the national breadbasket. A recent forecast from the National Weather Service estimates that one of the locks in the Mississippi might stay closed until at least the first week of May.

In Michigan, a federal judge ruled that the city of Flint can sue the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for its failure to quickly intervene in the 2014 Flint water crisis. U.S. District Judge Linda Parker said that the court “can today state with certainty that the acts leading to the creation of the Flint Water Crisis, alleged to be rooted in lies, recklessness and profound disrespect have and will continue to produce a heinous impact for the people of Flint.” Although it’s been five years since the water crisis, and Flint’s water is now declared safe, many residents are wary and continue to rely on bottled water for their daily needs.

In Iowa, the Des Moines Water Works recently completed a $2.5 million upgrade to its water system that will change the way it disposes of nitrates, which are removed during drinking water purification. Nitrates come largely from chemical fertilizers and animal waste that drain from farmland into rivers. Up until now, the removed nitrates have been dumped back into the Racoon River, one of the sources for drinking water. The new processing system will send the nitrates to the Des Moines wastewater center, where it will be treated and converted into a material that is useful for agriculture.

Circle of Blue reported on nitrate pollution in Iowa, where state data show rising levels of nitrate in private wells.

About 42 million Americans use private wells, an off-grid water supply solution for homes not connected to a public system. Though some states and counties require water testing when a home is sold or a new well is installed, there are generally no rules protecting private well users from contaminants in their wells. In effect, they are on their own.
Water contaminants are a genuine health risk and well users often have no idea what they’re drinking. Household wells are a risk factor for gastrointestinal illness, which can be traced to bacteria in the well. Nitrates are of special concern, particularly in farm regions where the chemicals are part of fertilizers and manure that concentrate in rivers and groundwater.
Iowa has glaring risk factors: it is one of the nation’s leading producers of corn and soybeans, it is home to 23 million hogs, and 85 percent of its land is dedicated to farms.
Some 55,000 private wells were tested between 2002 and 2017 under a state-run program. That is less than half the wells in the state. Those that were tested received just a glance. Two-thirds of the wells were tested just once in those 16 years. State health officials often recommend that homeowners test their wells every year.

Environmental Working Group and Iowa Environmental Council, the research and advocacy groups that looked at the state data, recommend more well testing in order to better understand the scope of the state’s nitrate problem.
In seven of the 10 counties with the highest average nitrate concentrations, fewer than 100 tests were recorded since 2002. In all 10 of those counties, average nitrate levels were 1.5 to six times higher than the EPA standard for public water systems.
The EPA limit for nitrate in drinking water is 10 parts per million, a level aimed at preventing sudden death in infants. Nitrate, which interferes with the blood’s capacity to carry oxygen, causes the suffocating “blue baby” syndrome. Recent research has pointed to chronic illnesses as a problem, too: such as bladder and colon cancer that develop after decades of exposure to nitrate at levels that are half the EPA standard.
Iowa has a plan to cut nutrient loads in rivers by 45 percent and Gov. Kim Reynolds approved $270 million last year for water quality projects, but nutrient reductions are far from being achieved.
And there are other causes for concern. The Iowa well testing program looks only at three contaminants: arsenic, bacteria, and nitrate. The Safe Drinking Water Act covers 91 substances and even that roster does not include undesirables such as PFAS chemicals and many pharmaceuticals.

David Cwiertny is a University of Iowa environmental engineering professor and director of the Center for Health Effects of Environmental Contamination. He supports increased well testing, saying there are many unknowns in the water there. And he asks, when, and if, more results come in, “how will we act on these data?”

And that’s What’s Up With Water…we’d like to know what’s up where you are – Tweet us with your water news @circleofblue #whatsupwithwater.

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