Water Utilities Shoulder Burden Of Nitrate Pollution

By Sara Jerome

The agriculture industry is responsible for putting nitrates in the water supply, but water utilities shoulder the burden of billing customers for the cleanup.

The nonprofit Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism recently collected figures on how these costs break down in that state.

“Since 1999, the state has provided loans to two or three public water utilities each year to address major nitrate contamination, totaling $32.5 million. Loan applications received in 2014 added up to another $4 million,” the Center reported, citing State Department of Natural Resources drinking water chief Jill Jonas.

So how do the costs break down for individual consumers?

“Per-capita costs vary: Janesville’s $9 million nitrate fix cost $151 per person, but in Mattoon, a town in Shawano County, the cost came to $2,455 per person,” the report said, citing research from a U.S. Geological Survey report.

Minnesota estimates are available, as well. A study from 2008 “found that the cost to buy bottled water to replace tainted tap water cost residents about $190 per person each year,” the Wisconsin non-profit reported, citing an article in the Journal of Soil and Water Conservation.

Of course, if agriculture footed the bill, consumers might still have to pay the costs, but some of the burden would be lifted from water suppliers. Farmers “could internalize those costs and spread them out over all customers so that people in Kewaunee County or Spring Green, areas which suffer from nitrate pollution, would not have to pay so much for water,” the report said.

Kevin Masarik, groundwater education specialist at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point Center for Watershed Science and Education, pointed out the challenges inherent in such a policy.

“It would involve us paying a few more cents at the grocery store,” Masarik said.

For more on how utilities deal with financial challenges, visit Water Online’s Funding Solutions Center.

Image credit: "NRCSTN83003-a," U.S. Department of Agriculture © 2013, used under an Attribution 2.0 Generic license: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/