In Flint and beyond, US water systems need protection
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Now that the water crisis in Flint, Mich. has become a national news story, plenty of other communities are examining the health of their drinking water resources and it's not a pretty picture.

Take Iowa, for example. Five-hundred thousand people in Des Moines get their drinking water from a river, and like Flint, it is more polluted than federal standards allow, but for different reasons. In Iowa, the problem is nitrate pollution from the overabundance of fertilizers used in corn country and the millions of animals confined in factory farms.

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Two-hundred-and-sixty towns and cities have the same problem in Iowa — in other words, polluted drinking water affects most of the state, writes environmental journalist Richard Manning in Harper's. Nothing like drinking a combination of nitrogen fertilizer, pesticides and manure mixed with water. Yum!

You might ask, aren't there environmental laws that protect this drinking water? In fact, there are not. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) can only regulate water that flows from a pipe into a river, from factories, for example, but has no authority over "nonpoint" pollution" that can't be attributed to any one source.

"Nationwide, any river or stream that wends through farm country suffers pollution to the point of death, but in the Upper Midwest, the plague is nearly total," writes Manning.

These are the same fertilizers that travel down the Mississippi River and end up in the Gulf of Mexico, causing the infamous dead zones. Iowa contributes 25 percent of that pollution, notes Manning.

While it didn't make national news, citizens in Toledo, Ohio couldn't drink the water in 2014 after fertilizers caused toxic algae blooms, Manning points out. What did Ohio Gov. John Kasich (R) do? He called in the National Guard to distribute bottled water and signed what Manning calls a "palliative bill, endorsed by Big Ag" that did nothing to prevent it from happening again.

Last year, when the EPA introduced the Waters of the United States rule to clarify oversight of rivers that supply drinking water for a third of Americans, Republicans passed legislation to stop what they considered to be "massive overreach." President Obama vetoed it.

And when the EPA tried to gain some control over factory-farm waste flowing into rivers, Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad (R) simply cut the budget for state inspectors, says Manning.

Meanwhile, Iowa utility Des Moines Water Works has spent over $1 million to filter nitrates out of the water, "[b]ut the level and persistence of the pollution have repeatedly overwhelmed the equipment," says Manning. If filtration doesn't work, the utility faces about $180 million for upgraded equipment.

It's not as if these problems can't be fixed. Instead of allowing farm runoff to directly enter waterways, it can be routed into pastures and wetlands that treat the water naturally. Manning says that just 10 acres of wetland can treat runoff from 1,000 acres of corn. Some farmers are moving in this direction.

Farmers can also reduce fertilizer use, of course. "If 40 percent of the cropland claimed by corn were planted with other crops and permanent pasture, the whole litany of problems caused by industrial agriculture — certainly the nitrate pollution of drinking water — would begin to evaporate. There are no technological or financial hurdles to implementing this program, but there is a political obstacle: the federal government would have to stop subsidizing the growing of corn. Between 1995 and 2012, those subsidies amounted to $84 billion," writes Manning.

In the latest ranking of how well countries protect their environmental resources, the U.S. comes in at No. 26.

Fried, Ph.D., is CEO of SustainableBusiness.com, known for its daily green business news and national green jobs service since 1996. She selects the constituents for NASDAQ's Green Economy Index.