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The Cost of Cleaning Up Nitrate Contamination Falls on America's Poorest Counties

A new report estimates that remediating contaminated small water systems could cost up to $666 a year per person.
Irrigation water at a cotton field in Porterville, California.

Irrigation water at a cotton field in Porterville, California.

Millions of people in the United States drink water contaminated with nitrates from agricultural runoff, which can have adverse effects on human health. For decades, cities and towns in California and the Midwest, where much of this pollution is concentrated, have tried to clean up their water—for a high price. Now, an Environmental Working Group report has found that the brunt of this cost falls on small, rural communities, where a disproportionate amount of residents are living in poverty.

The report, released on Tuesday, estimates that remediating these small water systems could cost up to $666 a year per person—and that's with the cheapest treatment option. This could bankrupt counties with the highest concentrations of nitrates in drinking water, including California's Los Angeles, Kern, and Tulare counties, which already have high rates of poverty and low household income.

"In California, the people who would end up paying the most to remove nitrates from drinking water are the people who can least afford it," says co-author Anne Weir Schechinger, a senior analyst at EWG.

Here are some key takeaways from the report.

Three Million People Are Using Water With Unsafe Levels of Nitrates—and No Treatment System

According to federal data, nitrates exceed the National Cancer Institute's recommended limit in the water supply of at least 1,700 communities—two-thirds of which have no treatment systems in place. This puts nearly three million Americans at risk for health problems, including methemoglobinemia, known as "blue baby syndrome." Studies have also shown that ingesting high levels of nitrates can increase the risk of birth defects and cancer. (The International Agency for Research on Cancer and National Cancer Institute list the nutrient as a probable carcinogen, although the Environmental Protection Agency does not.) This contamination is often concentrated in small, rural, and poor communities, EWG found.

Removing Nitrates Could Cost At-Risk Residents Hundreds of Dollars a Year

Nitrates can be removed from water using ion exchange or reverse osmosis, both of which can be costly for small communities. "If you want to use ion exchange, you have to build a whole new process," Weir Schechinger says. "Sometimes you have to build a whole new building, depending on how much water your water system treats. It's a really large investment ... and then you have to pay for operation costs every year." EWG found that it would cost every U.S. community with unsafe levels of nitrate—half the EPA's legal limit—$102 million to $765 million a year to remove the contaminants; among these communities, EWG's new interactive map shows residents who get their water from small water systems would pay a higher price than those in larger, more urban areas.

Voluntary Conservation Efforts Are Not Working

Prevention is much cheaper than treatment, according to EWG. But nitrate pollution, commonly caused by fertilizer or manure from large industrial farming operations, is not regulated under the Clean Water Act. Instead, the EWG reports, regulation has focused primarily on methods that farmers can implement on a voluntary basis, such as planting cover crops or improving drainage. However, those who take part are rarely the biggest polluters. The EWG report recommends imposing mandatory basic standards, which Weir Schechinger says would be tailored for the local community.

"Those farm standards could do a much better job protecting source water than they're currently doing," she says. "There's still time for these impacted communities to protect their source water so they don't have to pay."