Polluted drinking water is a significant health threat that is sorely under-reported and oft-ignored. A recent article in the Star Tribune1 highlights the very real struggle to access clean drinking water right here in the United States.
“Debbie Carlson can laugh at the irony: She’s the wife of a well digger who can’t find good water for his own family. Like one out of three wells in Dakota County, hers is so contaminated with nitrates she won’t let anyone drink from it — especially her 8-year-old granddaughter.
Most likely it comes from nitrogen used as fertilizer on the cornfields surrounding her home,” Josephine Marcotty writes.2 “‘Nitrogen was a great thing for the family farm,’ Carlson said. ‘But I am paying the price.'”
Minnesota Facing Growing Water Contamination Problem
In part due to the fact that Minnesota is prime farm land, many of the state’s inhabitants now face the problem of having elevated levels of nitrogen in their drinking water. The conversion of grasslands and pastures into chemical-driven, industrial crop land has eliminated much of the natural filtering of ground water that such native landscapes typically provide. The areas worst affected include:
- Dakota county
- Washington county
- Central Sands region (14 counties)
- Karst region
Besides the health risks — which include a potential connection to cancer, as well as thyroid and reproductive problems in both humans and livestock — groundwater contaminated by nitrogen is also a huge financial drain for affected communities.
According to the featured article, about a dozen Minnesota communities so far have spent millions of dollars to clean nitrogen from their water supplies. However, well owners, such as the Carlson’s, are on their own.
Their only alternatives are to pay to dig a new, deeper well, or install their own treatment system. At present, an estimated six percent of private wells are contaminated with nitrogen; this despite the fact that farmers have actually cut their use of the fertilizer quite dramatically.
“Now, through an emerging statewide strategy, the Minnesota Department of Agriculture is devising a range of fixes, including more water monitoring and guidance on how communities can restore some of the lost prairie landscape.
In the process, officials and farmers will tackle two thorny questions: How will government use its power to regulate nitrogen use in contaminated areas? And even if every landowner follows the best guidance science can provide, when will they know if it works?
Striking the right balance is crucial because the current approach, said Jill Trescott, Dakota County’s groundwater-protection supervisor, imposes a cost shift from agriculture to taxpayers and homeowners that is ‘just not fair.’ Says Carlson: ‘I think water is one of our most precious resources. What are our grandchildren going to be left with?'”
Is Your Water Safe to Drink?
Unless you are getting your water from a well that is located 800 feet or more below the ground surface, chances are your well water has been contaminated by some, if not many, toxic substances that have been dumped into the ground soil over past decades. Besides fertilizers like nitrogen, other common toxins that are dumped by the millions of pounds into soil every year are:
- Estrogen-mimicking hormones
- Drug residues
- Heavy metals
Many private wells in the United States have been affected by these types of chemical or heavy metal runoff from the surrounding ground soil, and this is to say nothing of the microorganisms living in well water as well. No matter how clean or pure your natural ground water looks, this has nothing to do with potential bacterial contamination or toxic pollution in the water. Many of the offenders in well water are just much too small to be seen with the naked eye.
So, if your home uses well water, you really need to test to see what unwanted contaminants you’re piping into your house, and then filter it accordingly.
If you get municipal water, you should have that tested too. There are more than 140 chemicals in U.S. drinking water supplies that are not regulated by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).3 This includes gasoline, pesticides, rocket fuel, prescription drugs and more. More than 20 percent of U.S. water treatment systems violated key provisions of the Safe Drinking Water Act between 2004 and 2009 alone. Since 2004, the water provided to more than 49 million people has contained illegal concentrations of chemicals like arsenic or radioactive substances like uranium, as well as dangerous bacteria often found in sewage.
Fracking — Another Threat to Fresh Water Reserves
Industrial agriculture is not the only threat to our drinking water. Hydraulic fracturing, the method used to drill for natural gas, also known as “fracking,” is becoming yet another major source of groundwater contamination. The documentary Gasland shed much needed light on the environmental destructiveness of the method. Promised Land, a Hollywood production featuring actor Matt Damon premiered on December 28, 2012. According to Reuters:4
“In the film, Damon plays a gas company landman – an agent who buys or leases land – intent on drilling beneath a town where some residents are concerned about the perils of fracking. As the landman gets to know the townspeople, he suffers a crisis of conscience.
…[B]oth industry and anti-fracking camps have mounted major campaigns to sway hearts and minds. ‘It could become the biggest environmental debate of our time,’ said Robert McNally, an energy policy expert and former White House adviser under George W. Bush. ‘Hollywood is taking notice, and the industry will have its work cut out for it to defend fracking.’
Nearly four out of ten Americans surveyed by the Pew Research Center early this year said they knew nothing about fracking. Other polls show most Americans familiar with the practice believe fracking offers economic benefits but requires tougher regulation. This year, for the first time, U.S. online searches for the term ‘fracking’ became more popular than ‘climate change,’ Google data showed.”
The primary concern over fracking is its environmental impact, particularly its potential to render water supplies undrinkable. The method entails pumping chemical-laced water and sand at high pressure into shale rock formation, thereby releasing hydrocarbons. The chemicals used in the process have the potential to leak into nearby groundwater, either from the well, or from spills above ground. Yet another concern is fracking-induced earthquakes.
According to Reuters, several drillers have been fined for water contamination due to spilled fracking fluids, and in 2011, the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) released findings of a potential link between fracking and water contamination after sampling water supplies in Pavillion, Wyoming. The EPA is scheduled to release an in-depth study on fracking’s impact on water supplies in 2014.
Fresh Water Reserves Depleted by Agricultural Irrigation
Besides contamination, fresh water reserves are also being outright depleted by agricultural irrigation. An article in Harper’s Magazine5 published last summer highlighted the rapid depletion of the Ogallala Aquifer — the largest subterranean water supply in the United States.
“Until the Second World War, the Ogallala went almost entirely untapped… It wasn’t until the 1940s, when a variety of new technologies coalesced on the plains, that large-scale irrigation sprang up for the first time — but from there, the transformation was quick. Within a decade thousands of wells were drilled, creating a spike in productivity as unprecedented as it was unsustainable…
Even as the U.S. population surged, with soldiers returning and babies booming, the output of the plains rose fast enough to meet and exceed demand. No one worried about the aquifer. To farmers it seemed a bottomless reserve, generating the same outlandish volume no matter how many straws went in. Soon there were hundreds of thousands of wells producing the same reliable flow, year after year, without any evident stress.
Then, during the early 1990s, farmers throughout the Great Plains began to notice a decline in their wells. Irrigation systems from the Dakotas to Texas dipped, and, in some places, have been abandoned entirely.”
According to Kevin Mulligan, a professor at Texas Tech University who leads the effort to monitor the Ogallala, available water in the aquifer has gone down by about 80-100 feet in just the past 15 years, and none of the water is likely to be replenished. A mere 20 years from now, it’s unlikely that any irrigated agriculture will be possible on the high plains — the water will be all gone… Then what?
Genetically Engineered Crops Compound These Problems
Industrial monoculture farming practices as a whole pose a tremendous threat to water supplies, in multiple ways, whether through contamination or by depleting what little fresh water is available. And far from being a solution, genetically engineered (GE) crops make matters even worse, as they end up needing more agricultural chemicals than other crops, and typically require more water…
India is an agrarian country, populated by 1.1 billion people, about 60 percent of whom are directly or indirectly dependent on agriculture. With the introduction of genetically engineered crops, Indian farmers have taken to suicide at alarming rates due to the failure of such crops. There are four primary factors directly related to the use of genetically engineered seed that contribute heavily to this grim situation:
- Limited water supplies and poor access to irrigation, combined with periodic drought and decreased monsoonal rainfall regularly cause GE crops to fail
- Compared to traditional seed, GE seeds are very expensive and have to be repurchased every planting season
- Genetically engineered crops also have much higher requirements for fertilizer and pesticide (in spite of Monsanto’s claims to the contrary) and, in spite of their cost to farmers, provide NO increased yield
What’s the Best Option for Safe, Pure Water?
There’s no doubt about it: Safe, pure water is becoming increasingly difficult to come by, even in otherwise affluent, developed nations. For most people, regardless of where you live, purifying the water you drink is more a necessity than a choice.
By this I do NOT mean resorting to bottled water from your supermarket. Bottled water is typically nothing more than bottled tap water that may or may not have received additional filtration, and the federal testing requirements for bottled water are actually more lax than those for communal water supplies.
One of the best alternatives to the tap may be finding a gravity-fed raw spring in your area — barring contamination from nearby agriculture, that is. Fortunately, natural springs are often monitored by the local municipalities for contaminants.
Natural spring water is naturally filtered by the earth and is “living water,” in the same way that raw food is “living food,” which is why it’s some of the most healthful water on the planet. Before you dismiss this idea because you think there are no such springs in your neck of the woods, there is a Web site called FindaSpring.com that can help you locate springs in your area.
The next best option is to filter the water that comes out of your tap, but there are benefits and drawbacks to virtually every water filtration system on the market. Currently, I use a whole house carbon-based water filtration system. Prior to this I used reverse osmosis (RO) to purify my water. This previous article can help you make a decision about what type of water filtration system will be best for you and your family. Since most water sources are now severely polluted, the issue of water filtration and purification couldn’t be more important.
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