Groundwater is out of sight, but its mismanagement has real consequences for our health.
An article in Saturday’s New York Times confirms what FLOW reported in November: elevated levels of nitrate in groundwater have polluted thousands of rural wells in the Midwest. The Times notes that up to 42,000 wells in Wisconsin may contain nitrate at levels that exceed the national drinking water standard. FLOW found that almost 15,000 Michigan wells tested by state government’s drinking water laboratory between 2007 and 2017 had detectable nitrate, and about 10 percent of those exceeded the health standard.
FLOW’s report also noted a U.S. EPA estimate that 3,254 square miles of groundwater in Michigan are contaminated with nitrate concentrations that are at least half the level of the drinking water safety standard. This is 6 percent of the state’s land area.
Nitrate is a form of nitrogen combined with oxygen that can be converted in the body to nitrite. Agricultural sources of nitrate include wastes from livestock operations and farm fertilizers. Nitrate in drinking water can cause a disease called methemoglobinemia, a blood disorder primarily affecting infants under six months of age. Some studies suggest maternal exposure to environmental nitrates and nitrites may increase the risk of pregnancy complications such as anemia, threatened abortion/premature labor, or preeclampsia.
The Times calls the problem, “Rural America’s Own Private Flint,” because, as in Flint, weak government policies and poor enforcement have enabled health-threatening contamination of drinking water. Excessive commercial fertilizer use and application of agricultural animal waste are the leading culprits in nitrate contamination. Government has a duty to protect all waters, including groundwater, for the benefit of the public. But in Michigan and surrounding states, governments are shirking that public trust duty.
Agriculture can thrive without spreading contamination throughout our groundwater. Enacting and enforcing laws that prevent excessive application of commercial fertilizer and animal wastes can be done without harm to the agriculture economy. The public deserves no less.
The next governor and legislature of Michigan have much work to do to protect the Sixth Great Lake – the abundant groundwater underlying our land that provides drinking water for nearly 4.5 million Michiganders.