Water

Luke Runyon / Harvest Public Media

In the summer of 2002, water pumps in Colorado’s San Luis Valley stopped working.

The center pivot sprinklers that coax shoots from the dry soil and turn the valley into one of the state’s most productive agricultural regions strained so hard to pull water from an underground aquifer that they created sunken pits around them.

“This one right over here,” says potato farmer Doug Messick as he walks toward a sprinkler, near the town of Center. He's the farm manager for the valley's Spud Grower Farms. “I came up to it one day and I could’ve driven my pickup in that hole.”

A barge sits in Missouri on the Mississippi River before it heads downstream to the Gulf of Mexico.
File: Abbie Fentress Swanson / Harvest Public Media

Chemical runoff from Midwest farm fields is contributing to the largest so-called ‘dead zone’ on record in the Gulf of Mexico.

Scientists have mapped the size of the oxygen-deprived region in the Gulf since 1985. This year’s is estimated at more than 8,700 square miles, which is about the size of New Jersey.

The amount and timing of rainfall contribute to the washing of chemicals from farm fields throughout the watershed into the Mississippi River and down to the Gulf.

The Brazile Creek Groundwater Management Area encompasses 756 square miles of north-central Nebraska.
Ariana Brocious / For Harvest Public Media

At a nitrogen management class in the small town of Creighton, Nebraska, Tanner Jenkins shows a chart of groundwater data to a group of about 40 farmers. He points to a red line, which shows the level of chemical nitrates in groundwater over time.

“You can see we’re on a pretty steady upward click,” Jenkins, who works for a local groundwater district, tells the farmers.

Decades of intensive farming have contaminated the groundwater across many parts of Nebraska. A new plan may help farmers in the northeastern part of the state address the problem.

With the legal battle raging over the implementation of controversial Obama Administration clean water rules, the next president is likely to face the daunting task of formulating a comprehensive plan to cut-down on water pollution from Midwest farms.

In the 1930s, rural electric cooperatives brought electricity to the country’s most far-flung communities, transforming rural economies. In Western Colorado, one of these co-ops is again trying to spur economic development, partly by generating more of their electricity locally from renewable resources, like water in irrigation ditches and the sun.

Standing on a platform above the eastern bank of the Missouri River at the Kansas City, Missouri, Water Services’ intake plant is like being on the deck of a large ship.

Electric turbines create a vibration along the blue railing, where David Greene, laboratory manager for Kansas City Water Services, looks out across the river. Water the color of chocolate milk is sucked up and forced through screens below, picking up all the debris the river carries downstream.  

Farming in the fertile Midwest is tied to an environmental disaster in the Gulf of Mexico. But scientists are studying new ways to lessen the Midwest’s environmental impact and improve water quality.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) forecasts the so-called “dead zone,” an area of sea without enough oxygen to support most marine life, to grow larger than the size of Connecticut, or roughly 6,000 square miles.  

On a gray day, just as the rain begins to fall, Roger Zylstra stops his red GMC Sierra pick-up truck on the side of the road and hops down into a ditch in Jasper County, Iowa. It takes two such stops before he unearths amid the tall weeds and grasses what he’s looking for.

“Here is one of the tiles,” he says, pointing to a pipe about six or eight inches in diameter. Water trickles from it into a culvert that runs under the road after flowing through a network of underground drainage lines below his farm field. “That’s where it outlets.”

Living in the Platte River Valley in central Nebraska means understanding that the water in your well may contain high levels of nitrates and may not be safe to drink.

“When our first son was born in 1980, we actually put a distiller in for our drinking water here in the house,” says Ken Seim, who lives in the Platte Valley near the town of Chapman, Nebraska. “And at that time our water level was a 12 parts per million.”

Contaminated drinking water isn’t just a problem for Flint, Michigan. Many towns and cities across the Midwest and Great Plains face pollution seeping into their water supplies. A big part of the problem: farming and ranching.

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