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Contaminants from fertilizer mean some rural areas must pay millions for clean water

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

On farms across the country, it's fertilizer that grows the crops that keep grocery shelves stocked and small towns alive. But fertilizer also contains chemicals that can leach into nearby drinking water. As David Condos of the Kansas News Service reports, when it comes time to clean up that water, some small towns struggle with the costs.

DAVID CONDOS, BYLINE: In most parts of the country, you can turn on just about any faucet and expect water that's clear, clean and relatively cheap. But as chemicals leach into rural water supplies, a growing number of small towns face a different and very expensive reality. Take Haviland, Kan., a town of about 700 people. Fifteen years ago, its drinking water went over the federal limit for nitrate, a chemical in most farm fertilizers. So the state made Haviland build a water treatment plant. The price tag - $2.5 million, or roughly $3,500 per resident. Inside the plant, former Mayor Robert Ellis walks through a maze of pipes toward a small meter on the wall.

ROBERT ELLIS: This is showing water nitrate, so right now, at 8.4.

CONDOS: Today, Haviland's water is cleaner, safer. But Ellis says that when most residents see the plant, they just think about how much it's costing them each month.

ELLIS: They've been drinking out of the garden hose for all their lives. They don't worry about the nitrates. All they look at is their water bill.

CONDOS: And those water bills have just about tripled. Dozens of nearby towns have found themselves in a similar situation, caught between massive costs and small budgets, and between the way traditional farming sustains their economies while channeling unwanted chemicals into their drinking water. Bigger cities already have sophisticated treatment plants to remove those chemicals, but most small towns don't. Historically, the water they pump from underground has been pure enough to drink without being treated. But in many places, that's no longer true. And towns like Haviland are left to pick up the multi-million-dollar tab. And it's not just in Kansas. Nitrate contaminates drinking water in farming regions from California to Pennsylvania. An Iowa State University study shows that since the 1940s, the use of nitrogen fertilizer nationwide has increased 34 fold.

DAVID CWIERTNY: We can't be surprised that we have increasing levels of nitrate in our water when we know that we're putting down increasing amounts of nitrogen on the land.

CONDOS: David Cwiertny is an environmental health researcher at the University of Iowa and says tap water standards put in place more than two decades ago aren't stringent enough. New research shows drinking nitrate for years can lead to cancer and birth defects, even at concentrations below current limits. But even if every farmer stopped fertilizing tomorrow, it could take decades for the nitrates already in underground water supplies to dissipate. And for farm towns that have not seen nitrate levels increase yet, researchers say it's likely just a matter of time. Three years ago, Rod Huffman (ph) got his own dreaded letter from the state. One of the water wells in his small town of Oakley, Kan., had too much nitrate.

ROD HUFFMAN: We're at, well, six, which was over the MCL limit.

CONDOS: Oakley could try to push back against the regulators and buy some more time. But as nitrate levels keep going up, Huffman says there's no point in delaying the inevitable. He says his town will build its own plant, and in preparation, has already doubled residents' water bills.

HUFFMAN: It's not going to be cheap, but it's cheaper than not doing nothing at all. You know, it's just not going to get any better.

CONDOS: And with fertilizer still a critical part of farming, he expects more rural towns to face this challenge soon. For NPR News, I'm David Condos in Oakley, Kan. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.