Today, we begin a week-long series on pollution in the heartland.
Storm water runoff from farm fields contaminates the lakes that many cities use for drinking water. But rather than making farmers reduce the pollution, the government requires water utilities to clean it up and pass the cost on to their customers. In the first part of our series, the GLRC’s Lester Graham reports on efforts some communities have made to stop the pollution at the source:
Today, we begin a week-long series on pollution in the heartland. Storm water runoff from farm
fields contaminates the lakes that many cities use for drinking water. But rather than making
farmers reduce the pollution, the government requires water utilities to clean it up and pass the
cost on to their customers. In the first part of our series, the GLRC’s Lester Graham reports on
efforts some communities have made to stop the pollution at the source:
To a great extent, nitrogen fertilizer determines how big a corn crop will be. But often, farmers
use more nitrogen than they really need. It’s a bit of a wager. If conditions are just right, that
extra nitrogen can sometimes pay off in more bushels of corn. But just as often the extra nitrogen
ends up being washed away by rain.
That nitrogen can get into lakes that are used for public drinking supplies. If nitrate levels get too
high the nitrogen can displace oxygen in the blood of children under six months old. It’s called
‘blue baby syndrome.’ In extreme cases it can cause death.
Keith Alexander is the Director of Water Management for the city of Decatur, Illinois. He recalls
that the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency required his city to give families with babies
bottled water because nitrogen levels exceeded the federal limits.
“For approximately six years, while we went through the motions of determining what was best
for our community, we did issue bottled water on an infrequent basis when the nitrate levels did
The City of Decatur had to get nitrate levels down. So, they piggy-backed on federal and state
incentives offered to farmers to use better management practices. The city gave farmers money
to build terraces to reduce soil erosion. It gave money on top of federal and state tax dollars to
farmers to put in grass waterways to slow water rushing off the fields. The city gave farmers
money on top of federal and state incentives to use conservation tillage methods. They offered to
pay to install artificial wetlands so plants would take up the nitrogen before it got into the public
water supplies. It gave farmers money to use a chemical that help stabilize nitrogen in the soil.
With all that city and state and federal money offered to farmers, was it enough to reduce nitrogen
to safe levels?
Keith Alexander says some farmers did take advantage of the incentives. But not enough of
“We’ve done quite a bit on a voluntary basis with a lot of great cooperation from the agricultural
community, but in spite of all that, we would still at times have elevated nitrate levels in Lake
The city had to build the largest nitrate reduction facility in North America, at a cost of 7.5 million dollars to ensure its drinking water did not exceed the federal standards for
The people who tried to persuade farmers to sign up for the nitrogen reduction programs say
many of the farmers were skeptical that they were the cause of the problem. Some didn’t care.
And some were just skeptical of government programs and the red tape involved.
Steven John is the Executive Director of the Agricultural Watershed Institute. He’s still working
with farmers to reduce nitrogen runoff in the region. Today, the reason is not Decatur’s lake but a problem farther downstream.
“To a fairly large extent, the driver for addressing nitrogen issues now is loading to the Gulf of
Mexico. And, in one sense, because we’ve been at this for some time here and developed a little
bit of a history of city-farm cooperation– also developed good monitoring data, you know, to be
able to look at trends over time– we’re in good position to use our watershed as something of a
laboratory to test ideas that might be applied elsewhere in the corn belt.”
Nitrogen from the Decatur lake watershed eventually flows into the Mississippi River. Illinois,
just like all or parts of 37 other states drain into the Mississippi and finally to the Gulf of Mexico.
There researchers believe the nitrogen fertilizes algae growth, so much so that when the algae
dies and sinks to the bottom of the gulf, the decomposing vegetation robs the water of oxygen
and causes a dead zone that can be as large as the state of New Jersey some years.
But getting farmers to change their farming practices when it was causing problems for the city
next to them was difficult. Getting them to change for a problem hundreds of miles away is even
Ted Shambaugh is a farmer who has changed. He says the reasons farmers don’t take the
nitrogen problem more seriously is complicated, but as far as he’s concerned, it’s part of how
farming has changed in the last few decades:
“This is going to fly against a lot of common thought, I suppose, about the farmer, and it does get
me in trouble sometimes, but the farmer has become inherently lazy in his management
techniques. They’ve even gone to the fact that even though they’ve got a 150,000 or 200,000
dollar tractor sitting there, they hire their nitrogen put on. Why do they do that? Well, a lot of it
is because they then have somebody to blame. That, if it didn’t go on right, ‘Well, I didn’t do
that.’ Well, we kind of think that’s what we get paid for, is management.”
Most people in cities like Decatur won’t say things like that about the farmers in the countryside
about them. The economic well-being of many of the cities in the corn belt are highly dependent
on agriculture. Criticizing farmers is just not done, even when many of those farmers won’t lift
a finger to clean up the water that their city neighbors have to drink.
For the GLRC, this is Lester Graham.