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 Louisiana, state leaders are using federal funds to help struggling water systems. On January 25, state lawmakers approved $274 million for water utilities to repair their water and sewer networks. That’s in addition to a previous $23 million that was approved in December, according to the Louisiana Illuminator. The combined sum of nearly $300 million comes from Louisiana’s share of federal pandemic relief funds. Though 116 water systems will receive assistance, many more need help. About 500 communities applied for funding. To fulfill some of these unmet needs, Gov. John Bel Edwards is proposing an additional $550 million for the program.
Also in the United States, a new report finds that climate change is making it costlier to insure commodity crops against severe weather. The report analyzed federal data, and found that annual insurance payments made to farmers to cover their losses from droughts and floods tripled on average in the last 25 years. That time period includes unusually high crop losses in the Midwest due to drought in 2012 and flooding in 2019. The report was published by the Environmental Working Group, a nonprofit research organization. The 10 counties that received the highest insurance payments for drought-related losses were all in Texas. The 10 counties with the highest payments for flooding were in South Dakota and North Dakota. These patterns follow climate trends. Texas, especially its Panhandle, where these counties are clustered, is getting hotter and drier. The northern plains, including the Dakotas, are getting wetter.
This week Circle of Blue published the first story in a two-part series on the impact of farm chemicals on families and communities in Nebraska.
Pediatric cancer is more common in Nebraska than anywhere in the United States outside of the Northeast. The state’s pediatric cancer rate is the seventh-highest in the country. Circle of Blue examines compelling evidence for one possible explanation: agrochemical contamination in Nebraska’s surface, ground, and drinking water.
According to a University of Nebraska Medical Center research team, high numbers of pediatric cancer cases, especially central nervous system tumors, leukemia, and lymphoma, are associated with Nebraska watersheds with high levels of nitrate (a fertilizer) or atrazine (a weed killer) in surface and groundwater. Statistical analysis points to agrochemical pollutants in streams and groundwater as a potential source of Nebraska’s outsized pediatric cancer caseload.
Nitrate is one of the most violated federal drinking water standards. EPA data for the U.S. shows over 450 systems in violation at the end of last year. Twenty-three are in Nebraska. Collectively, farms are the largest source of nitrate pollution in rivers and groundwater. But the penalty for contaminated water is paid by the people who drink it, and who must bear stricter and more costly standards in order to protect the public health.
Agrochemicals that increase crop production, kill insects and weeds, and prevent plant and animal diseases are well-recognized hazards around the world.  The documented risks to health and the environment are weighed against the benefits of an ample food supply at reasonable prices, so regulatory authorities have been reluctant to exert strong safeguards except in the most egregious instances — like banning DDT in 1972 because it prevented birds from reproducing.
Even with that record of risk nitrate pollution is in a category to itself. The chemical fertilizers that farmers insist are needed for high yields are largely unregulated. There is similar lack of regulation on the nitrogen-rich manure produced by contemporary animal agriculture. The result is that nitrates are causing health and ecological trauma in farming regions across the country and around the world as farmers and governments intensify their efforts to produce more food from each acre of land.
Getting nitrates out of groundwater will not be easy. Nitrate is water soluble and soils are loaded with excess fertilizer that could take decades to expunge, even if farmers cut back on future applications.  The long legacy of nitrate is complicated by a changing climate. In the coming decades, more intense precipitation is expected in the Midwest and Great Plains, and one recent study found that this could flush more nitrate from soils into groundwater, especially from fields that are tilled.
The federal nitrate standard of 10 parts per million was set three decades ago to protect infants from a disease called blue baby syndrome. Now there are new worries. Recent studies in the United States and Denmark on nitrate exposure indicate a higher risk of preterm birth, low birth weight, birth defects, and infant brain tumors. In adults, there is a higher risk of colorectal cancer and some associations with thyroid disease. These associations are present when nitrate is above the federal drinking water standard, but in some cases, they are present even below the federal drinking water standard. Researchers who specialize in the health effects of nitrate say it will take more work to establish cause-and-effect relationships. In the field of epidemiology, and especially in drinking water assessments, no single study is ever definitive.
Every six years, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is supposed to review national drinking water standards to consider whether updates are needed. The agency considers new data on health effects, treatment capabilities, and how often contaminants occur in drinking water. The most recent review came in December 2016. The agency concluded that eight drinking water standards were candidates for revision. The nitrate standard was not one of them. The agency chose not to tighten restrictions on nitrates in drinking water.
The EPA is again in the middle of a six-year review of drinking water regulations. This one is scheduled to be completed next year. If the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency were to tighten nitrate restrictions the consequences would be enormous. The risk of disease would likely decrease. But more communities would then violate the standard and would be required to upgrade their treatment works or find new water sources with lower levels of nitrate. That is a difficult proposition in farm country, where a town may be surrounded by high-nitrate groundwater. In deciding whether to tighten nitrate restrictions, the EPA must weigh the potential health benefits to communities against the economic burden they would bear to achieve them.
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.