Cheap Meat’s Cost
Industrial agriculture plays a
significant role in Iowa’s water quality crisis. This includes pollution from
manure application, runoff and spills that contaminate waterways with bacteria,
nitrates, phosphorus, antibiotics, and heavy metals. Since 2000, there have
been over 787 manure violations reported by the Iowa Department of Natural
Resources (DNR).1 Those are just the ones that are documented. Some
of these releases result in fish kills.
The Des Moines Register reports
that 75% of the state’s rivers, streams and lakes that have been tested are
impaired. Only 12% of its 72,000 miles of rivers and streams and approximately
50% of its 202,200 acres of lakes have actually been tested, so Iowa’s water
pollution problem is likely more extensive.2
Nitrates, in particular, can have
a health and financial impact on public drinking water supplies. High nitrate
levels – over 10 milligrams per liter - can cause Blue Baby Syndrome, a
potentially fatal illness in infants, as well as other health issues.3
Des Moines Water Works has battled high nitrates levels in their drinking water
for several years. In 2015, the utility says it ran its expensive denitrification
system for a record 177 days at a cost of $1.5 million to its ratepayers.
Nitrate pollution is an issue for
a large number of municipalities across the state. A Des
Moines Register report found over 60 cities and towns had high levels of
nitrates in their drinking water from 2010-2015. Further, the Iowa DNR says
that water supplies of 260 cities and towns – 30% of Iowa’s municipal water
systems – are susceptible to nitrate and other pollutants. Most of these
communities can’t afford to install the expensive equipment needed to clean
nitrates out of drinking water. 4
Toxic blue-green algae is also on
the rise in Iowa’s waterways. This summer the Iowa
Environmental Council reported that 37 beach advisories, a record number, were
posted at Iowa state beaches due to high levels of microcystin, a toxin
produced by some blue green algae blooms. Exposure to microcystin causes a
variety of reactions, including breathing problems, upset stomach and even
liver damage. Children and pets are especially vulnerable, and it can be fatal
in dogs in a matter of hours.5 Trace levels of microcystin was also
found in the Des
Moines Water Works drinking water this summer, and the utility had to shift
from drawing water from the Raccoon River to the Des Moines River for several
Rural homeowners can also be
impacted by raw hog sewage that seeps into their wells, contaminating their
drinking water. Some neighbors report they were forced to shift to rural water
services when they could no longer use their well, an additional cost they had
to shoulder. A study in Kewaunee
County, Wisconsin, home to a large number of dairy CAFOs, found that 34% of
320 tested wells didn’t meet safe drinking water health standards.7
How much will it cost to clean up Iowa’s waterways? One cost
estimate developed by Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy (INRS) puts cleanup
efforts at $1.2 billion to $4 billion. Another INRS cost estimate projects $77
million to $1.2 billion annually. The Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy is a
voluntary program developed by the Iowa DNR, Iowa Department of Agriculture and
Land Stewardship, and Iowa State University to reduce nitrates and phosphorus
in Iowa waterways by 45%.8
Who pays for these costs? There is a lot of ongoing debate with no
clear answers. Some legislative solutions under consideration may shift the
cost onto taxpayers, either through funding the Iowa’s Water & Land Legacy Natural
Resources and Outdoor Recreation Trust Fund or by moving funds away education. If the latter, public schools will likely
suffer from reduced infrastructure funding. 9
Other costs not measured in
dollars and cents include illness and suffering from exposure to toxins and limited
or eliminated recreational enjoyment of Iowa’s beautiful natural resources, including
fishing, swimming, and other water activities.
Ultimately, it’s Iowa citizens who
pay in one form or another.
These are some of the costs cheap meat imposes on Iowa's precious water.
Learn What You Can Do Here
1. Iowa Department of Natural
Resources Hazardous Material Release Database.
2. “Can Iowa Improve Its Water
quality If It Can't Agree How to Measure Success?” The Des Moines Register.
November 19, 2016.
4. “High Nitrate Levels Plague
60 Cities, Data Show.” The Des Moines
Register. July 7, 2015.
5. “Iowa Sets New State Record
for Blue-Green Algae Advisories.” Iowa Environmental Council. September 2,
7. “One-Third of Wells in
Kewaunee County Unsafe for Drinking Water.” Milwaukee-Wisconsin
Journal Sentinel. December 21, 2015.
8. Iowa Nutrient Reduction
9. “Iowa Statehouse Election
Winners Face Critical Issues in 2017.” The
Gazette. October 2, 2016.
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