ag runoff

Kristofor Husted / Harvest Public Media and KBIA

Farming in the fertile Midwest is tied to an environmental disaster in the Gulf of Mexico. But scientists are studying new ways to lessen the Midwest’s environmental impact and improve water quality.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) forecasts the so-called “dead zone,” an area of sea without enough oxygen to support most marine life, to grow larger than the size of Connecticut, or roughly 6,000 square miles.  

Peggy Lowe / Harvest Public Media

Standing on a platform above the eastern bank of the Missouri River at the Kansas City, Missouri, Water Services’ intake plant is like being on the deck of a large ship.

Electric turbines create a vibration along the blue railing, where David Greene, laboratory manager for Kansas City Water Services, looks out across the river. Water the color of chocolate milk is sucked up and forced through screens below, picking up all the debris the river carries downstream.  

“The muddy Mo,” Greene says. “The Missouri River drains one-sixth of the United States, so there’s a lot of stuff that can affect the water quality in the river.”

Amy Mayer / Harvest Public Media

On a gray day, just as the rain begins to fall, Roger Zylstra stops his red GMC Sierra pick-up truck on the side of the road and hops down into a ditch in Jasper County, Iowa. It takes two such stops before he unearths amid the tall weeds and grasses what he’s looking for.

“Here is one of the tiles,” he says, pointing to a pipe about six or eight inches in diameter. Water trickles from it into a culvert that runs under the road after flowing through a network of underground drainage lines below his farm field. “That’s where it outlets.”

Brian Seifferlein / Harvest Public Media

Living in the Platte River Valley in central Nebraska means understanding that the water in your well may contain high levels of nitrates and may not be safe to drink.

“When our first son was born in 1980, we actually put a distiller in for our drinking water here in the house,” says Ken Seim, who lives in the Platte Valley near the town of Chapman, Nebraska. “And at that time our water level was a 12 parts per million.”

Nitrates are formed when nitrogen, from the air or fertilizer, is converted by bacteria in the soil to a form that is more plant-friendly. Nitrates help plants grow, but can be dangerous in large amounts. The legal limit in public water systems is 10ppm. Some nearby wells, Seim says, contain nitrates at dangerous levels, two or three times the legal threshold.

Luke Runyon / Harvest Public Media

Contaminated drinking water isn’t just a problem for Flint, Michigan. Many towns and cities across the Midwest and Great Plains face pollution seeping into their water supplies. A big part of the problem: farming and ranching.

Amy Mayer / Harvest Public Media

This is the latest installment of Harvest Public Media’s Field Notes, in which we talk about important issues related to food production.

Thanks to tight competition, hog farmers all over the country are feeling a push to expand or get out of the business. That means indoor confined animal feeding operations – or CAFOs – are growing even in the most environmentally sensitive areas.

Clay Masters for Harvest Public Media

Thanks to tight competition, hog farmers are feeling a push to expand or get out of the business. That means indoor confined animal feeding operations, or CAFOs, are growing, even in the most environmentally sensitive areas.

The hog industry’s impact on the water supply is worrying many residents of northeast Iowa’s Winneshiek County, near Decorah.

columbia city hall
File Photo / KBIA

Columbia City Council members approved stricter requirements for a controversial potential housing development near Rock Bridge Memorial State Park. KBIA’s Kate Grumke reports dozens of residents spoke up about their concerns at Monday’s meeting.

Clay Masters

This summer, officials in Iowa have been asking farmers to voluntarily reduce the amount of fertilizer they use. That’s because the fertilizer contains nitrates that are being washed into state waterways and creating environmental concerns locally and nationally. The runoff has been particularly bad this year, and the outcry over typical crop practices is growing.

Abbie Fentress Swanson/Harvest Public Media

This spring and summer, U.S. Geological Survey scientists waded into 100 Midwest streams to test for hundreds of chemicals used in farming, including nutrients, pesticides like atrazine and glyphosate, and livestock hormones. The results from the study are trickling in. But preliminary findings indicate that from May through early July, 21 percent of the region’s streams contained very high levels of nitrogen in the form of nitrates.

Abbie Fentress Swanson/Harvest Public Media

It doesn’t come as a major surprise that agricultural runoff is doing more harm than good to the environment. Agriculture is the nation’s leading cause of impaired water quality, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Storms move pesticides, nutrients and sediment from farmers’ fields to nearby waterways. These will ultimately end up in the Gulf of Mexico where they can threaten aquatic life.

America's hugely productive food system is one of its success stories. The nation will export a projected $139.5 billion in agricultural products this fiscal year alone. It's an industry that supports "more than 1 million jobs," according to Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack.

But all that productivity has taken a toll on the environment, especially rivers and lakes: Agriculture is the nation's leading cause of impaired water quality, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Abbie Fentress Swanson / Harvest Public Media

On this week's show, we'll discuss ag runoff and community supported agriculture.