Iowa Environmental Council calculates costs of high nitrate levels

DES MOINES — The Iowa Environmental Council has found Iowans will pay $333 million over the next five years to remove nitrates from drinking water supplies if nitrogen pollution rates don’t change.

Iowa Environmental Council water program director Alicia Vasto says the group has reviewed data from the state agency that issues permits for construction and operation of livestock confinements.  “Our report outlines the costs of agricultural pollution, particularly from livestock operations here in Iowa, for everyday Iowans,” she says.

Vasto says the costs are eye-popping and include treatment for life-threatening health conditions. “Nitrate pollution is linked to increased incidences of cancer and a report just earlier this year found that Iowa has the second highest rate in the nation for overall cancer incidence,” Vasto says, “so there’s a growing body of research that is saying the drinking water standard for nitrate is not actually protective enough for these long term health risks.”

A Stanford University study found the risk of premature births doubled among women whose drinking water contained nitrates. The Iowa Environmental Council’s report concludes every Iowan is paying direct or indirect costs associated with nitrates. “When the nutrients in that manure or in that fertilizer can’t be taken up by plants, it leaves the farm fields and enters in our waterways,” Vesto says, “so that contamination can be very costly in terms of health care costs or drinking water costs, but also just costly to quality of life.”

According to the U-S Environmental Protection Agency, more than 250 new livestock confinements were built in Iowa in 2022. The Iowa Environmental Council cites state records which indicate there are more than 9000 animal feeding operations in Iowa of various sizes.  “There can be major spills or leaks from manure storage systems,” Vesto says, “but most of the contamination that is problematic is from the application of manure to farm fields.”

Vasto notes that every state agency is reviewing all state rules and regulations and that includes the Iowa Department of Natural Resources, which oversees confined animal feeding operations.  “We should be keeping in mind that when we loosen regulations, costs will increase for everyday Iowans,” Vasto says, “but if we increase enforcement and regulations we can help prevent some of those costs.”

It costs a lot to remove nitrates from drinking water. It costs the Des Moines Water Works $10,000 a day to operate its nitrate removal facility when nitrate levels are high.