Water-Musings: Drinking Water

An article in the May 2018, issue of Harper’s Magazine discusses drinking water issues in Pretty Prairie, KS.

Many aspects of the situation described in this article are ubiquitous to rural communities throughout the country. These issues are summarized below. I have expanded on solution options based as per my experience with drinking water issues on the Central Coast of California.

  • What are some of the farming issues?
    • Market conditions and/or government policies favor farm consolidation; therefore, there are fewer people to address the issue.
    • Market conditions and/or government policies may promote over-production.
    • Margins are tight; therefore, every farmable acre counts.
    • Consumption of nitrogen fertilizers has substantially increased since the 1960s.(Note: An assumption would be this is fueled by over-use; however, this is also the result of increased agricultural efficiency per acre.)
    • Crop plants cannot utilize all of the fertilizer applied; therefore, it is present in the soil to leach into groundwater or run-off into surface water drinking supplies.
    • Growers are risk averse and fear yields losses or reduce quality if they reduce fertilizer use.
  • What are some of the potential farming solutions?
    • Delay decisions until circumstances demand action or technology improves to remove barriers.
    • Biotechnology may increase crop nitrogen use efficiency; thus reducing fertilizer application rates.
    • Biotechnology may better manage when nitrogen is available for plant uptake through slow release fertilizers or nitrification inhibitors or management of plant metabolism.
    • Improved technologies may control mineralization and eliminate the need for cover crops. For example, the University of California Cooperative Extension, Monterey County, is trialing carbon sources such as almond hulls and glycerol to tie up over-wintering nitrogen and is release it in the spring when crop plant are present.
    • Increasingly, states are imposing nitrogen use and/or nitrogen management regulations.
  • What challenges exist for municipalities and/drinking water systems?
    • The nitrate in drinking water is persistent and nitrate levels may be increasing.
    • Globalization has moved business out of town and reduces tax revenues.
    • The size of the problem may be too large to be addressed locally.
    • Previous federal programs are shrinking to provide funding for drinking water.
    • Funds for building a drinking water system or treatment plant might be procured but the local government may not be able to afford ongoing operation and maintenance (O&M) costs.
    • Local technical resources may not be available.
    • Technical expertise might be more than the local government can afford.
  • What are some of the solutions that exist for municipalities or drinking water systems?
    • The short-term solution is to provide drinking water to vulnerable members of the population.
    • Traditionally, treatment created a waste stream. However, this may be ameliorated with improving biological treatment technology; thus, reducing this barrier for treatment.
    • Drill additional drinking water wells in aquifers with clean water.
    • Abandon wells with unacceptable nitrate levels.
    • Blend water from impaired wells with clean water to meet the EPA drinking water numeric standard of 10 ppm Nitrate as Nitrogen (NO3-N).
    • Use creative well-testing to meet EPA standards (Note: this is not recommended.)
    • Levy Municipal, Regional, or State taxes on ratepayers, businesses, and/or growers to pay for impaired drinking water systems.

Royte, Elizabeth, Drinking Problems, A Kansas Town Confronts a Tap-Water Crisis. Harper’s Magazine, (Archive May 2018): https://harpers.org/archive/2018/05/drinking-problems/