Private wells used for drinking water in Iowa face widespread contamination due to agricultural practices, according to a new report out Wednesday, highlighting the latest in a series of major drinking water issues unfolding across the country.
Authored by the Environmental Working Group (EWG) and the Iowa Environmental Council, the report finds that agriculture, a major contributor to greenhouse gas emissions and the leading industry in Iowa, is also endangering water sources for nearly 300,000 Iowans who rely on private wells. Rural areas in particular are bearing the brunt of the contamination, impacting communities that could play a key role in the 2020 election. Moreover, polling shows that clean water has emerged as a top environmental concern for Americans across the country, including in the Midwest.
But while Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Andrew Wheeler has argued water issues are the world’s leading environmental crisis — outranking climate change — clean water advocates say the agency has done little to address the problem. This month, the EPA halted a study probing the health impacts of the ion nitrate, which is often produced as fertilizer and is one of the substances contaminating private wells in Iowa.
“EPA only regulates drinking water provided by public water systems,” said Anne Weir Schechinger, a senior economics analyst with EWG and the study’s primary author. She told ThinkProgress that both public and private water contamination is “a national issue” but that private wells in particular have emerged as a major health problem, one without any real governmental oversight, from either state or the federal agencies.
Iowa has long struggled with water issues stemming from its substantial agriculture industry. Des Moines Water Works (DMWW), which services around 500,000 people, has frequently dealt with nitrate contamination from upstream farms. In 2015, the publicly-owned utility sued three Iowa counties under the Clean Water Act for nitrate discharges and has frequently warred with the Iowa Farm Bureau and state lawmakers over contamination.
But the new report indicates that Iowans drinking from private wells are also facing severe pollution issues. In the largely rural state, hundreds of thousands of people rely on private wells, many of which are unregulated and not subjected to testing.
Using data from the Iowa Department of Natural Resources (DNR) that tracks private wells, the report lays out the extent of the contamination in those water sources. Not every private well in Iowa is included because many were built before the state required well-testing during construction. An estimated 230,000 to 290,000 Iowans — out of just over 3 million people in the state total — rely on private wells for their drinking water, but only 55,000 wells in the state were tested for either nitrate, bacteria, or both between 2002 and 2017.
During the 16-year period examined by the report, almost 75% of private wells had unsafe levels of nitrate, coliform bacteria, and fecal coliform bacteria — contaminants that can lead to elevated cancer risks and birth defects.
The EPA says there is no safe level of coliform bacteria in water. But of the wells tested, more than 40% tested positive for that bacteria at least once, with more than 4,300 wells testing positive every time. Around 12% of wells tested meanwhile had nitrate averages above the legal limit of 10 parts per million established by the EPA. That standard has been challenged by studies indicating an increased risk of cancer can occur following lower exposure levels and the report found that 22% of private wells in Iowa had nitrate levels within that lower range.
Much of that contamination comes from nearby farms, particularly in rural Iowa.
“There’s a clear pattern of widespread private well contamination across Iowa that is growing worse for nitrate and staying steadily bad for bacteria,” Cindy Lane, water program director for the Iowa Environmental Council, said in a statement. “But we don’t even have information on the thousands of wells that were not tested during this period. That makes me worry that the problem is even more serious than documented.”
Exacerbating the issue even further is a lack of monitoring. Neither the state of Iowa nor the federal government requires private wells to be tested or regulated, something the report argues is dangerous and leaves the owners of those water sources to deal with the problem themselves.
“A lot of people don’t know what to do… I really think the EPA could be doing more oversight there,” said Schechinger, who noted that the agency allows states to control their own water and could likely expand its authority more to provide assistance for private well waters facing contamination. That could include anything from financial help to educational outreach, she said.
Iowa’s water contamination issue, and the government’s insufficient response, illustrates a wider problem being experienced in other parts of the Midwest and the country. Schechinger said Minnesota, Nebraska, and Wisconsin are grappling with similar well contamination problems, along with parts of rural California, Texas, and Oklahoma.
In his role at the EPA, Wheeler has said that water problems are the most severe environmental issue facing the world. In the United States alone, numerous areas are facing lead crises and contamination from per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), cancer-causing chemicals found in things like nonstick cooking pans.
The prevalence of agriculture-linked contamination in well water adds to that list. And much of the responsibility for addressing such problems lies with the state. Still, the EPA isn’t doing enough to address the issue, Schechinger argued. In fact, the EPA recently stalled a study reassessing the maximum contaminant limit (MCL) for nitrate. The study’s findings could result in a stricter standard for nitrate contamination, but earlier this month the EPA halted the reassessment, along with other projects “not identified as priorities for fiscal year 2019.”
Without regulation by the EPA, it is unclear what impact the study could have for private wells, but with a revised standard owners could be better equipped to protect themselves should they conduct tests. Experts say more information about the contaminants in water is important for water policy, as well as for individual knowledge.
The paused EPA projects “may be restarted as Agency priorities change” but there is no indication if or when that might happen. In response to a request for comment from ThinkProgress, an agency spokesperson said that the EPA “will continue to monitor research on nitrates and other drinking water contaminants” and will reevaluate at a later date whether further review of nitrates is necessary.
With regards to private wells, the spokesperson said that the EPA “does not regulate private wells but does recommend that owners test their wells regularly for nitrates” and that the agency “has established standards for more than 90 drinking water contaminants” as part of its commitment to addressing water issues.
The EPA isn’t alone in failing to address the private well water crisis. At the state level, officials have done little to mitigate water problems relating to agriculture. And the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) also has yet to tackle the issue, according to Schechinger.
“USDA really hasn’t done anything to stop the tide of farm pollution from running off,” she said, noting that the same big farms responsible for major emissions in states like Iowa are likely also a leading source of contamination for nearby water.
The government may come under more pressure to tackle issues in places like Iowa as the 2020 election cycle ramps up, with the Midwest considered a political battleground for both Republicans and Democrats. A Gallup poll released this week found that all U.S. regions are concerned about climate change but that drinking water pollution is the leading environmental concern.
This article has been updated to include comments from the EPA.