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Drinking problems: A Kansas farm town confronts a tap-water crisis

Elizabeth Royte, a contributing editor at FERN, writes about the long history of nitrate contamination in the water of Pretty Prairie, Kansas, a farming community just west of Wichita, in the latest issue of Harper’s MagazineOne of the things she explores is why residents didn’t demand that the town fix the problem, even though they’ve known for decades that their water had unsafe levels of nitrates, a result of fertilizer runoff from area farms. The answer, she finds, stems from the close-knit relationship between the town and its surrounding farmers, the burdensome cost of the fix and a disinclination for change. In farm country, Pretty Prairie isn’t alone.  Royte writes that 118 public water systems—most in heavily farmed areas of Kansas, Texas, Oklahoma, and California—are currently out of compliance with federal standards, representing a kind of hidden story about the way farming impacts drinking water. The full story can be read in Harper’s and will be available on FERN’s site in the future; in the meantime, FERN Executive Editor Brent Cunningham interviewed Royte, via email, about her story.

You’re an urban, coastal person. Pretty Prairie is ‘the heartland.’ Conventional wisdom says people like you don’t understand places like Pretty Prairie. What was your mindset going into the story, and how did it change by end of your reporting?

From writing and reading about water issues over the years, I had the mindset that when water quality is poor, you work on fixing it — through grassroots activism, with regulators, political representatives, and through the courts, if you must. So I went into the story a little perplexed about why Pretty Prairie residents had gone so long with high nitrate levels in their drinking water: they’d known for decades that their water was, basically, illegal. Then, as I learned more about their beliefs — that nitrates don’t threaten anyone but very young children (who got free bottled water from the town) — and about the financial burden of building a treatment plant, I wondered why residents had so little animus toward those who had contaminated their water, the farmers who worked the land surrounding their tiny community. What I came to understand is that maintaining cordial relations and the economic status quo were more important than pointing fingers and trying to get powerful actors to change their ways.

You run through the many reasons why Pretty Prairie hasn’t acted more aggressively to deal with the water problem. But, in light of Bill Stowe’s remarks about the science behind the 10 ppm threshold for nitrates, how much of the reluctance to act can be attributed to the anti-science, anti-expert mindset that helped fuel the rise of Donald Trump?

Long before Trump’s campaign, residents of Pretty Prairie doubted that nitrates were harmful to their health. As so many people told me, ‘We’ve been drinking this water all our lives, and we’re healthy.’ It doesn’t help that many peer-reviewed papers note that most adults consume more nitrate from their food — in processed meats and vegetables like beets or spinach — than they do from drinking water (although Pretty Prairie residents likely do consume more nitrate in water than in food, a scientist at the National Cancer Institute told me). The science on the impact of nitrates on adults is a bit uncertain, and government officials who visited Pretty Prairie could not state unequivocally that nitrates were harming residents. That made a big impression on them.

One thing that Trump’s election did give the town was hope that EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt would offer them a break from ‘burdensome regulation’ (building the treatment plant, that is), or that Congress would defund the agencies that offered rural areas water infrastructure grants (no funding, no construction), or that the town would be allowed to continue with its bottled-water option.

What does the Pretty Prairie story say about America, and its approach to the existential problems (climate change, water and food supply, rising inequality, and so on) we face in the 21st century?

The Pretty Prairie story is, fundamentally, about the primacy of community and the value of getting along. This can be a positive force: communities need to work together to protect and more equitably share our natural resources. But closing ranks to fight federal and state drinking water standards and regulators is also worrisome to me; I’m reminded of western ranchers who refuse to remove their cattle from overgrazed public lands.

I think the situation in Pretty Prairie exemplifies an American bias toward technological fixes that don’t require fundamental changes in how we live (in this case, a new water filtration plant) over systemic fixes that may be more difficult to achieve but will ultimately be more sustainable and equitable. In the case of Pretty Prairie, that might mean adopting farm practices that prevent contaminants from sluicing off fields into groundwater. Of course, Pretty Prairie needs to take both paths right now: to clean up its drinking water in the plant and work on long-term solutions that require less energy, fewer chemicals, and produce less waste. Maybe one day, with its groundwater-quality restored, the town can decommission its reverse osmosis plant. Those high nitrate levels aside, Pretty Prairie’s water is reported to be pretty good!

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