Farmers use nitrogen fertilizer on their fields to grow bigger, better crops. But when there’s too many nitrates left behind in the soil, it can pollute the water supplies of farms and nearby towns. It’s becoming a major problem for small communities throughout Kansas and the rest of the Midwestern farm belt. Bruce Dvorak studies small town water systems at the University of Nebraska in Lincoln. He says some small communities are stretching their budgets to remove nitrates from the water supply. "For many small towns this is a very major cost issue." Dvorak says. "It may mean water rates, if they're lucky only double. In some cases it may go up by eight to ten times.” Recently the city of Des Moines, Iowa sued nearby farmers to recover some of the expense of removing nitrates from the city’s water. That suit is working through the courts now. Many farmers are now starting to change their fertilizing practices, using fewer nitrates and seeking safer alternatives but water experts say significant improvements in groundwater quality could take 20-to-30 years.
This story was produced by Grant Gerlock of Harvest Public Media, a reporting collaborative focusing on agriculture and rural issues in the Midwest.