A National Scandal: How US Climate Funding Will Make Water Pollution Worse

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The Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) has been applauded by many US organizations and activists due to the generous funding earmarked for projects to “combat climate change and environmental health.”

But there are some concerns that certain provisions of this new law could aggravate an existing environmental disaster in the nation’s heartland by increasing the level of farm-related pollution into waterways and groundwater.

Though it is “intended” to reduce emissions, the $369 billion dollar law includes incentives for producing more corn-fed ethanol refineries and manure-based energy production, which could lead to more fertilizer and fecal contamination getting into water sources.

“It’s going to end up in the water,” Rebecca Ohrtman, a water quality specialist from Iowa, said of the contaminants from crop production and what are commonly called “confined animal feeding operations” (CAFOs).

Ohrtman spent much of her career as a water protection coordinator with the state of Iowa. “I can’t believe they’re going to provide all this funding with no strings attached.”

The Great Lakes and midwest regions face nothing short of a water quality emergency, say those on the frontlines. Farming-related contaminants have already fouled thousands of drinking water wells from Minnesota to Missouri, and virtually every waterway in Iowa is degraded with little regulation to rein in the pollutants.


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Environmental advocate Emma Schmit stated: “It’s already a national emergency and a national scandal…We’re about to give large corporate farms carte blanche to make it worse.”

John Ikerd from University of Missouri added regarding this issue:

“Anytime we incentivize production of a nutrient-hungry crop, you’re going to get nutrient pollution,” Jones said. “Corn loses a lot of nutrients to the environment. We know that for a certainty. We’re incentivizing further production. We’re going to get more pollution. You don’t need to be a genius to know that.”

The Biden administration seeks to increase corn acreage as part of their energy strategy for ethanol being a primary feedstock for producing “sustainable” fuel for airlines. To this end, they aim to boost ethanol production from 15 billion gallons in 2022 to 21 billion gallons this year, with an ultimate goal of 23 billion gallons by 2025.

The $1.01 per gallon tax credit serves as a victory for corn and ethanol producers; however this plan brings with it significant environmental implications concerning water quality.

Based on current usage rates, refining five more billion gallons of ethanol could lead to 1.5 more billions pounds worth of fertilizer being applied in corn-growing states – exacerbating existing water quality issues in the region.

“We’re putting more and more pressure on the productivity of agriculture to produce more corn, more livestock for our fuel,” said John Ikerd, professor emeritus of agricultural economics at the University of Missouri. “It’s also producing more pollution. Any other industry that creates this amount of pollution and represented this level of risk to public health would be heavily regulated.”

The law’s effect on large cattle and other livestock feeding operations is also worrisome.

The country’s large livestock operations, primarily centered in the midwest, produce hundreds of billions of gallons of untreated liquid manure and tens of millions of tons of solid manure that are spread over farmland with scant oversight. Manure contains nitrogen, phosphorus, and dangerous pathogens that can also run off and contaminate waters across the region.

In 2016, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) identified phosphorus and nitrogen discharges from US farmland as “the single greatest challenge to our nation’s water quality”.


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Research conducted by federal and state entities has shown that up to 70% of the applied nitrogen runs off land and into streams, rivers, and groundwater.

This agricultural nutrient pollution has been a leading factor as to why the Clean Water Act has not achieved its goal of providing “fishable and swimmable” waters across America.

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