According to the Des Moines Register, Des Moines’ nitrate removal facility was responsible for dumping approximately 13,500 pounds of the contaminant into the Raccoon River last year.
Nitrates can be detrimental to human health if consumed in high enough quantities, which is why the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency requires drinking water to be monitored for the compound. However, once nitrates are removed from the drinking water, they are often released back into Iowa’s waterways.
The Des Moines location is not alone in this practice. The majority of Iowa’s other 15 nitrate removal facilities follow the same routine, and many do not monitor what quantity of nitrate they are releasing.
Although this practice is completely legal, it has serious environmental ramifications. The Raccoon River is part of the Mississippi River watershed, which empties into the Gulf of Mexico. Midwest fertilizer runoff from the watershed, high in nitrates, is largely responsible for the Gulf of Mexico’s Dead Zone. Nitrate levels in the Gulf’s water allow algal blooms to thrive, which in turn leads to low oxygen levels that are deadly for many aquatic species.
The future is not completely bleak; progress is being made towards preventing the nitrates from reaching water systems in the first place. Farmers and researchers are collaborating to explore and advance environmentally sustainable agricultural practices.