A new report warns of dangers to our drinking water and no one even seems to notice.
In the days when newspapers were thick and people took the time to read them, a report like the one issued recently by the Environmental Working Group would have drawn the attention it deserves.
But those days are over, and getting the word out to the masses about important environmental topics is harder than ever.
That’s why EWG’s April report, “Troubled Waters: Farm Pollution Threatens Drinking Water,” hardly made a ripple in Wisconsin, even though it focuses on problems that we ignore at our own risk. Frankly, if I drank water this summer from Lake Winnebago, as do about 140,000 people in Appleton, Neenah, Menasha and Oshkosh, I’d be plenty scared after reading the EWG report. Yet it received almost no attention from Fox Valley media.
EWG focused on the impact of water that runs off farm fields treated with chemical fertilizers and manure and is loaded with nitrogen and phosphorous, “two potent pollutants that inevitably end up in rivers and lakes and set off a cascade of harmful consequences.”
The cascade starts in the water bodies. In the case of phosphorous, the chemical stimulates explosive blooms of aquatic algae, including the dangerous blue-green algae that produce toxins that can be deadly. These toxins can harm the nervous system, cause stomach and intestinal illness and kidney disease, trigger allergic responses and damage the liver. Wisconsin has reported numerous cases of human and animal poisoning, the report notes.
Bad stuff, right? It gets worse: “The cascade continues when utilities try to combat these and other threats by treating drinking water with disinfectants such as chlorine. Treating algal contamination this way gives rise to carcinogenic disinfection byproducts, whose levels typically spike during the summer months — when algae blooms peak.” Algae also give tap water an unpleasant taste and smell, the report notes. The message for the average person: If your water tastes and smells bad, it probably is bad.
The EWG report focused on nutrient overloading of surface and ground water in Wisconsin, Illinois, Iowa and Minnesota, which happen to be the core of the Midwestern corn belt. With demand for grain products high, our remaining farmland is under more pressure than ever before.
Much of Wisconsin relies on ground water for its drinking water, and we’ve had hundreds of examples of private wells being polluted by farm runoff. Many of those wells are in areas like Brown County, which has the highest concentration of large dairy farms of any county in the state and fragile karst topography, which allows runoff to escape to ground water through cracks and fissures. Urban sprawl, meanwhile, has reduced the available agricultural land for spreading manure from these operations.
Surface water problems are equally troubling. The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources says 172 lakes and streams are formally listed as impaired due to phosphorous pollution or sediment. The pollutants also impact stream and lake health in a variety of other ways, ultimately reducing the health of these water bodies.
The EWG report came out at about the same time Governor Scott Walker was announcing plans for Dairy 30X20, a program to expand the dairy industry. “We need more milk,” Walker said. He failed to add, “And we need clean water.”
Are the two mutually exclusive? No. They never have been. Wisconsin is edging toward new phosphorous standards that can address the problem creatively and use market forces to do so. Point sources such as wastewater utilities contribute about 20 percent of the phosphorous to our waters. If the law is implemented effectively, they will be asked to make reductions. The most costly route: expensive upgrades to treatment facilities. A less costly alternative: water quality trading schemes that pay farmers for best-management practices to reduce runoff at the site.
Short of that, maybe it’s time to use the R word: regulation. We have always had the tools that can lead to sustainable agriculture and clean water. We’ve just lacked the societal will.
June 14, 2012
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Bill Berry is a FightingBob.com contributing editor who lives in Stevens Point and writes columns for the Capital Times and other publications.