Farmers are using fewer pesticides these days. (photo by Don Breneman)
Today, we continue our series on pollution in the heartland. Farm pollution is one of the biggest contamination problems in the country. But unlike other industries, there are very few pollution restrictions on agriculture. In the second story of our week-long series, the GLRC’s Lester Graham reports when cities clean up pollution from pesticides, the cost ends up on their citizens’ water bills:
Today, we continue our series on pollution in the heartland. Farm pollution is one of the biggest
contamination problems in the country. But unlike other industries, there are very few pollution
restrictions on agriculture. In the second story of our week-long series, the GLRC’s Lester
Graham reports when cities clean up pollution from pesticides the cost ends up on their citizens’
Every city in the Corn Belt that gets its water from surface supplies such as lakes and rivers has to
deal with pesticide contamination. For the most part, the pesticide levels are below federal
standards for safe drinking water. But water treatment plants have to test for the chemicals and
other pollutants that wash in from farm fields.
Some cities have had to build artificial wetlands or take other more expensive measures to help
reduce pollution such as nitrogen, phosphorous and pesticides.
Craig Cummings is the Water Director for the City of Bloomington, Illinois.
“Well, you know, it is an expense that, you know, we would rather not bear, obviously. We
don’t, you know, particularly like to pass that on to our customers. But, again, it’s understood
that we’re not going to have crystal clear, pristine waters here in the Midwest. But, that’s not to
say that we should stick our head in the sand and not work with the producers. At least here in
our little neck of the woods we think we have a great working relationship with the producers.”
Part of that working relationship is a liaison with the farmers.
Jim Rutheford has worked with farmers in the area on soil conservation issues for decades. He’s
showing me the artificial wetlands that the City of Bloomington is monitoring to see if it can help
reduce some of the contaminants that end up in the city’s water supply. The wetlands reduce
nitrogen runoff and filter out some of the pesticides such as atrazine that otherwise would end up
in Bloomington’s lake.
“The atrazine was used back several years ago in high concentrated amounts. Its effects were if
you get a flush of rain after your atrazine is put on, it comes into the lake.”
Rutherford says for a very long time atrazine has been popular with corn farmers.
“It’s the cheapest, but it’s also gives more problems as far as water quality is concerned.”
Because atrazine has been so popular, a lot of farmers use it and it’s polluted some lakes to the
point they exceeded safe drinking water standards.
In one test during spring applications of atrazine, National Oceanic and Atmospherica
Administration scientists found so much of the chemical had evaporated from Midwest farm
fields that rain in some parts of the East Coast had atrazine levels that exceeded safe drinking
But atrazine levels have been going down. It’s not so much because of artificial wetlands or
because farmers are concerned about pesticide pollution, although some of them have expressed
concern. Atrazine has not been as much of a problem because more and more farmers are
switching to genetically modified crops such as Round-Up Ready soybeans and more recently
Round-Up Ready corn. The Monsanto seed is genetically altered so that the Monsanto pesticide,
Round-Up, can be applied to the fields and not hurt the crops. And Round-Up doesn’t cause the
kind of water pollution that atrazine does.
Mike Kelly is a farmer who’s concerned about reducing storm water runoff from farm fields.
“A lot of the herbicides that we’re using attack the plant, not the soil. For example, Round-Up
does not hang around in the soil. Now, I do still use atrazine. It does attach to soil particles. But
there’s where the advantage of no-till–the soil staying put in the field–as you said, we’re not
getting as much erosion, so it stays put and breaks down the way it’s supposed to.”
Kelly use a conservation tillage method that doesn’t plow up the soil the way traditional methods
do. That means less soil erosion so pesticides aren’t as likely to end up in waterways. And Kelly says low-till and no-till methods are beginning to get a hand from nature:
“Definitely conservation tillage and no-till is going to help keep herbicides in the field. Again, he
do see increased infiltration through better soil structure and also through earthworms coming
back, creating holes about the size of a pencil three to four feet deep in our soils. That is a nice
avenue for water to infiltrate rather than run off.”
And if more of the water percolates down into the soil, less of it is going to end up polluting
water supplies such as the City of Bloomington’s lake.
Water Director Craig Cummings says they city encourages voluntary efforts like Mike Kelly’s.
Cummings says the city depends on the farming community too much to point a finger, accusing
farmers of pollution.
“We recognize that we’re in the breadbasket of the world here. And we’re going to see with the
kind of agricultural practices that we have here in the Midwest or United States, we’re going to
see some of these contaminants.”
Cummings says it’s not a matter of eliminating pesticide contamination at the source, but
rather a matter of the city keeping levels low enough that the water is safe to drink.