Harrison Burns–Staff Writer
Sioux Center is one of many towns within Sioux County and rural America struggling to maintain acceptable drinking water levels despite economic and organizational difficulties.
Clean drinking water is one of humanity’s most necessary and valuable resources but it is also one of the most easily taken for granted. With the national coverage of the Flint water crisis, however, awareness of water quality is rising throughout the United States and Sioux Center is no different.
Though Sioux Center doesn’t have any immediate and disastrous dangers like Flint’s lead poisoning, there are some concerns surrounding the local water quality that are being closely monitored. Most notable of these concerns is the nitrate levels found in the drinking water. Nitrate is tasteless and extremely water soluble, and due to the agricultural society and economy, the water supplies throughout Sioux County are more likely to be tainted with an unhealthy surplus.
The defined maximum limit for nitrate in drinking water is 10 parts per million (ppm), or 10 milligrams per liter. Sioux Center’s water regularly lingers uncomfortably close to that line, with the 2017 Water Quality Report showing Sioux Center’s nitrate level to be at 8.3ppm.
Nitrate in drinking water is closely monitored due to its many negative effects on human health. When in extremely high concentration (70ppm and higher) dysentery occurs in adults and recent studies have begun theorizing that even lower levels of nitrate can interact with other compounds to increase a host of other chronic ailments. But the 10-ppm line is enforced because of nitrate’s deadly results among infants (0-6months of age). When above 10ppm, nitrate can cause “Blue Baby Syndrome”, which interferes with infant’s ability to transfer oxygen. The infant gradually suffocates because they are unable to convert the nitrate into other forms. In the 1950’s, “Blue Baby Syndrome” swept across the country in agricultural communities including Sioux County, resulting in the nitrate regulations enforced today.
Sioux Center’s higher nitrate concentration, which is just below the 10-ppm violation, is the result of several factors. One major reason being that more than half of the Sioux Center drinking water comes from shallow wells that are about thirty feet deep, on the west bank of the Floyd River. Dordt’s Environmental Studies Professor, Robert De Hann, spoke on the wells’ proximity to the river.
“If you took a sample of the water flowing through the west branch of the Floyd River right now,” De Haan said, “it’s probably between twenty and twenty-five ppm nitrate.” The high percentage of nitrate infiltrates the nearby wells, boosting the nitrate concentration in everyday drinking water.
Sioux Center is also at risk because of our large amounts of livestock, which leads to high manure usage. Whereas expensive commercial fertilizer is used sparingly, manure is often overapplied and breaks down more slowly. This process results in higher concentrations of nitrate in the soil profile during the fall with no more crops to absorb it.
There are techniques to prevent high levels of nitrate.
“Technically it’s not a problem,” De Haan said, “but economically and socially it’s a problem.”
One way to bring down levels is the widespread planting of perennial vegetation such as Pasture, Hay, and Alfalfa that would remain through the seasons and absorb the nitrate in the soil profile. But, according to De Haan, there is no market for such plants and therefore the plan lacks any economic incentive.
Wood chip bioreactors are another effective means of decreasing nitrate. This technology contains bacteria that converts nitrate into nitrogen gas, which makes up the majority of the air we breathe. However, with no funding system to help farmers install such technology, Sioux County has yet to take advantage of it.
But with water quality becoming more of a concern nationwide and within Sioux County, some additional means of nitrate prevention might be necessary despite the economic cost, particularly in towns like Rock Valley that receive almost all their drinking water from shallow wells. De Hann believes that a field by field analysis to implement the best procedures would be necessary, a process he has researched in a peer-reviewed PLOS article on “Residual soil nitrate content and profitability” detailing the different soil and crop relations possible in northwest Iowa.
Nitrate levels are only one of many factors in creating clean water but it is a factor of high priority within Sioux County, which could have increasing economic and political consequences in the years to come.