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EPA, Geological Survey Launch Massive Farm Runoff Study



Fields of waving wheat are iconic in the mosaic that makes up traditional America, and the agricultural industry is a bustling one in the United States. USDA, the United States Department of Agriculture, forecasts that net farm income in 2013 will be $128.2 billion, the highest since 1973.


This economic success story, however, is dampened by the fact that pesticides, herbicides, fertilizers and other runoff from farms are polluting America’s rivers and lakes, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Indeed, agriculture is the number one cause of impaired water quality in the U.S.


This summer, the EPA is teaming up with the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) to sample water from some 100 midwest streams to test for literally hundreds of pesticides and nutrients used in farming. Ultimately, a group of three dozen scientists are aiming to uncover how farm runoff is affecting life in these streams.


According to Northwest Public Radio, the effects of farm runoff can be multifold. Increased levels of nutrients and fertilizers in streams and lakes can lead to algae blooms, for example. The chemical atrazine, which causes reproductive effects in amphibians, is also seeping into waterways.


Heavier rainfalls following times of drought are further contributing to more runoff. Bob Broz, a water quality specialist for University of Missouri Extension explains, “Whether you want to blame it on climate change or just variability in the weather conditions, anytime you have these heavier rainfalls during the spring, after a drier period when you could have got something put in the field, you’re going to see, in most cases, a large amount of runoff.”


Another outcome for consumers is that prices for treated water will go up. Mark McNally, commissioner of the Clarence Cannon Wholesale Water Commission told Northwest Public Radio that the Missouri-based company spends $130,000 yearly on powdered activated carbon, a chemical used to treat drinking water for atrazine. Says McNally, “Aunt Agnes, you know, on Third Street, has to pay more for her water because we have to recoup our money.”


This summer’s spring and lake study will cost the EPA $570,000 and the USGS $6 million. The agencies plan to conduct similar studies in other parts of the country in coming years.


Visit the EPA’s web page with tips for what you can do to help the environment.