Welcome to “What’s Up With Water,” your need-to-know news of the world’s water from Circle of Blue. I’m Eileen Wray-McCann.
In China, sport and spectacle are trumping environmental stewardship. The twenty-fourth Winter Olympic Games opened in Beijing on February 4, ushering in two weeks of world-class athletic competition. But those athletes will be competing on largely manmade terrain. The region outside Beijing is mountainous. But it has little water and even less natural snow. The New York Times reports that creating the ski runs and snowboard halfpipes required a massive snow-making effort. The Beijing games will be the first to take place primarily on artificial snow. To deliver the water to make the snow, China relied on engineering and coercion. Officials halted farm irrigation in the area and they built pumping stations to transfer water from reservoirs located miles away. Not all the water from snow-making will be lost. The plan is to capture water that melts from the slopes for reuse. Mounting such an operation for several weeks is one thing. Doing it for decades is another. China’s long-term goal is to turn the Olympic venues into a snow sports hub, even as a warming climate is likely to decrease local water supplies. It’s uncertain if the region will have enough water in the coming decades to make snow for its skiers.
In the United States, a large city is changing the way that its poorest residents pay for water. Baltimore officials launched the Water 4 All program, which calculates monthly water bills based on household income. Residents in the program won’t have to pay more than three percent of their income on water. Some will pay much less. To be eligible, Baltimore residents must earn less than 200 percent of the federal poverty limit. That’s about $53,000 a year for a four-person household. Social justice advocates have been campaigning for this type of program because the cost of water in Baltimore has been rising quickly. The city needs to replace aging pipes and overhaul its sewer system. To pay for the work, water rates climbed 10 percent per year in the last three years. Baltimore’s payment program follows the lead of Philadelphia, which began a similar income-based arrangement in 2017.
This week Circle of Blue published the second story in a two-part investigation on the dangers of farm chemicals in drinking water. Those chemicals include nitrate, which is a public health problem due to the heavy use of fertilizers and the manure generated by livestock.
A map of drinking water nitrate violations resembles a map of America’s high-value farm regions: California’s Central Valley and Washington’s Yakima Valley; the Corn Belt from eastern Nebraska through Iowa to Illinois; the Texas Panhandle; nearly all of Wisconsin dairy land; and eastern Pennsylvania extending into the tri-state Delmarva region, dominated by poultry operations.
The towns at risk for nitrate in these areas share traits in common. They are neighbors to the agriculture industry. They typically use groundwater. Groundwater systems account for nearly 95 percent of nitrate violations, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. And another common trait for towns at risk for nitrate is size: almost all nitrate violations occur in systems that serve fewer than 3,300 people, and those systems with the smallest populations are especially vulnerable.
The nitrate risk profile: agriculture, groundwater, small size  –  looks a lot like Creighton. Creighton, like hundreds of small Nebraska communities, is surrounded by a vast expanse of corn and soybeans. But Creighton is distinctive because of a small tan building not too far from Main Street – it’s the town’s nitrate removal facility, and a focus for town administrators and visiting water professionals.
Creighton is home to about 1,100 people. It was the first town in Nebraska to install reverse osmosis treatment for nitrate. It cost about a million dollars in 1991 to open the facility, but the town needs it in order to meet federal drinking water standards. Other communities have found themselves in the same situation. Today, the Nebraska Department of Environment and Energy counts 49 public water systems in the state using reverse osmosis systems to remove nitrate. Kevin Sonnichsen, the town’s water commissioner, is responsible for running the facility. The annual operating cost, including electricity and cleaning the filters, is about $550,000. As Sonnichsen puts it, “it’s a money pit.”
Creighton might not be the only one in the area digging deep to deal with water problems. Plainview, another small farm town, is a 15-minute drive southeast of Creighton. The town has two wells, and one began to exceed the federal nitrate limit in 2020. Plainview officials have already had to close two other wells because of high nitrate levels. When that happened they drilled new wells. But drilling yet another well will be a challenge. There are few nearby places where the groundwater isn’t already contaminated. If a new well doesn’t work out, an alternative might be a reverse osmosis system like Creighton’s.
Plainview is working with an engineer to weigh the options. Jeremy Tarr, the town administrator, is preparing to spend a lot. “We know it’s coming,” Tarr said. “We know it’s going to be a big number.” Tarr worked in other small towns in Nebraska before taking the Plainview job in August 2020. None of these other towns had nitrate problems, so Tarr is learning as he goes. He figures a new well could cost $2 million, which he says a high price for a small community. If a new well is expensive, a reverse osmosis system would be an astronomical outlay. Tarr will know more in the spring when the engineering reports are filed, but he’s anticipating numbers of $8 million or more. “I’m not wanting to go down that road,” he said.
Places like Plainview might see some help on the horizon.  On January 19, a bill introduced in the Nebraska Legislature would offer $10 million in grants to rural communities for reverse osmosis treatment systems to remove nitrate. The money would come from the state’s allotment of federal coronavirus relief funds. The bill is scheduled to be heard by the Nebraska Legislature’s Appropriations Committee on March 3.
For utilities that do not meet the current nitrate standard, the treatment options are daunting.  Chad Seidel of Corona Environmental Consulting described them as  “complicated, onerous to operate, and expensive.”  The idea of tightening the limits on nitrates in drinking water is challenging to town managers and utility operators because it’s already so difficult and expensive to meet the current limit of 10 parts per million.
The most common water treatment option is ion exchange, a process in which contaminated water passes through a filter that swaps out nitrate for another type of ion, like chloride. Ion exchange works, Seidel said, but it has drawbacks. The process introduces salts into the waste stream, which are harmful for downstream waters. And these systems require savvy, well-trained operators, who might not be available in tiny communities.
A second option is reverse osmosis, the type of system that Creighton uses. But Seidel says that method has its downside as well, producing more corrosive water that could strip lead from pipes. And it also requires trained operators.
Communities nationwide are facing similar financial questions regarding nitrate. Ted Corrigan is the CEO and general manager of Des Moines Water Works, which is the drinking water utility for Iowa’s capital city. Des Moines is downstream from one of the most severe zones of agricultural water pollution in the country. Corrigan said that the utility’s $4 million nitrate removal facility, which was installed in 1992, costs $10,000 a day to operate.
It’s turned on only when nitrate levels spike in the Raccoon River, one of its water sources. But the fact that the facility exists, Corrigan said, is an indictment of  Iowa’s  pollution-control measures. “It’s a cost that we shouldn’t have,” Corrigan said. “It’s a cost that’s inequitable, in my opinion.”
And that’s “What’s Up With Water,” from Circle of Blue, where water speaks. More water news and analysis await you at This is Eileen Wray-McCann – thanks for being here.