Americans Are Worried about Water Pollution (And They Should Be)

April 7, 2017 | 1:26 pm
Des Moines Water Works
Karen Perry Stillerman
Deputy Director

Apparently the Trump administration hasn’t heard about the latest Gallup poll, which puts Americans’ concerns about water pollution and drinking water at their highest levels since 2001. Why do I say this? Because in addition to rolling back a key Obama-era clean water rule, a leaked EPA memo reveals that the administration intends to slash or eliminate funding for a slew of water programs and initiatives. And while recent and ongoing crises like the one in Flint have highlighted urban drinking water problems, it is also true that rural communities—whose voters helped put President Trump in office—have plenty to worry about.

Gallup’s annual Environment Poll found that 63 percent of Americans worried “a great deal” about pollution of drinking water, and 57 percent have a similar level of concern about pollution of rivers, lakes and reservoirs. Such levels of concern about drinking water were highest among non-white and low-income groups, but were reported by majorities of respondents across racial and income lines.

The Trump administration is trashing clean water protections

Against this backdrop of Americans’ rising water worries, President Trump is taking actions that will actually make the nation’s waters dirtier. First he staffed his administration with Big Ag and Big Oil boosters, including his EPA chief Scott Pruitt. Then he signed an executive order to begin undoing the EPA’s Clean Water rule, over which (not coincidentally) Pruitt sued the EPA while serving as Oklahoma attorney general. To emphasize his disdain, the President called the rule, “horrible, horrible.”

But what’s really horrible is what the Trump administration did next. As the Washington Post reported last Friday, a leaked EPA memo sheds new light on the budget cuts previewed a few weeks earlier. My colleagues have documented how cuts will impact clean vehicle programs and climate research, so here I’ll focus on implications for EPA’s clean water work. Bottom line: it’s worse than you thought. The memo names at least 17 water-focused programs and sub-programs slated for total elimination, and others that would face sharply reduced funding. By my tally, the cuts to EPA Office of Water programs total more than $1 billion.

That’s deeply troubling, because when the administration yanks precious dollars from clean water programs, people and communities suffer. Whether it’s cleaning up pollution in Lake Michigan, restoring wetlands around Puget Sound, preventing farm runoff into the Chesapeake Bay, or testing drinking water in rural Maine that doesn’t happen because there’s no money and no staff, people will be hurt. People’s health, people’s recreational opportunities, people’s livelihoods. And costs that could have been averted balloon instead.

Water worries are rising in farm country

It’s not just urban or industrial communities that will suffer from the Trump administration’s budget cutting. The Washington Post reported last weekend on the irony that many cuts would disproportionately hurt rural communities that supported him, because they rely heavily on federally-funded social programs. The article didn’t mention water pollution, but it’s a fact that water supplies in (and downstream from) agricultural areas bear a heavy burden of contamination from farm runoff. High levels of fertilizer-derived nitrates in drinking water, which can cause severe health problems in infants, are a particular concern. The USDA has estimated the cost of removing agricultural nitrates from public water supplies at about $1.7 billion per year, and the total cost of environmental damage from agricultural nitrogen use has been estimated at $157 billion annually. Rural communities and cities like Des Moines, Iowa, are struggling to deal with the problem. And cuts to EPA monitoring and cleanup programs in rural areas could just make it worse.

A false choice

When the Trump administration talks about gutting environmental protections, their argument seems to boil down to, “because jobs.” But that’s a false choice. And the damage industrial agriculture wreaks on the nation’s water resources is a prime example. It affects millions of Americans—rural and urban water consumers, of course, but also taxpayers responsible for pollution cleanup, and boaters, fishers, and business operators that depend on clean water. And it affects farmers, because they too need clean water and healthy soil to be able to keep farming over the long term.

Last summer, UCS documented the potential benefits to farmers, taxpayers, and businesses from an innovative farming system integrating strips of perennial native prairie plants with annual row crops. Researchers who developed the system in Iowa found that by planting prairie strips on just 10 percent of farmland, farmers could reduce nitrogen loss in rivers and streams by 85 percent, phosphorus loss by 90 percent, and sedimentation by 95 percent. And this is all while maintaining farm productivity.

UCS further estimated that the prairie strips system, if adopted across the nation’s 12-state Corn Belt, would generate more than $850 million per year in net savings to farmers and society from reductions in fertilizer use and surface water runoff. In the coming weeks, we’ll follow up with analysis of another farming system based on extended crop rotations, which also promises to keep farmers profitable while reducing pollution.

Smart farm policy can deliver clean water and rural prosperity

This is timely, because Congress is already at work on the 2018 farm bill, that massive piece of legislation that comes around every five years and shapes the nation’s food and farming system. And while the Trump administration has shown utter disregard for the environment that all Americans depend on, for scientific evidence of what works, and even for the particular needs of the farmers and rural voters who put him in office, we’re betting that more reasonable voices will prevail. We’re mounting a campaign to protect the nation’s precious water resources while simultaneously improving farmers’ yields and creating economic opportunities in rural communities. We will mobilize UCS supporters, form common cause with farmer organizations, and join with other allies to call for policies that invest in such systems. Stay tuned.