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Cheap Meat’s Cost to Water

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. During the summer of 2016, 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 in 2016, and the utility had to shift from drawing water from the Raccoon River to the Des Moines River for several days.6


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.

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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. 

3. “Pouring It On: Health Effects Of Nitrate Exposure.” Environmental Working Group. 

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, 2016. 

6. “Water Works Finds Microcystin in System·” The Des Moines Register. August 3, 2016. 

7.  “One-Third of Wells in Kewaunee County Unsafe for Drinking Water.” Milwaukee-Wisconsin Journal Sentinel. December 21, 2015.

8.   Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy. 

9. “Iowa Statehouse Election Winners Face Critical Issues in 2017.” The Gazette. October 2, 2016. 

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