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Report: Nitrate from Fertilizer Polluting Drinking Water in Ag Regions

March 13, 2012

DAVIS, Calif. - Much of the groundwater used for drinking in California's two leading agricultural regions contains unsafe levels of nitrate from farm fertilizer, according to a new report from the UC Davis Center for Watershed Science. In fact, the amount of contaminated water in the Tulare Lake Basin and the Salinas Valley is so vast it would fill Lake Shasta nearly eight times.

Laurel Firestone, co-executive director of the Community Water Center, was one of the reviewers of the report. She says the first step is making sure that farm communities have safe drinking water right now, and then going to the source of the problem by reducing the amount of fertilizer that's getting into groundwater.

"We work with communities that are directly impacted by this problem, that don't have safe drinking water every day. These are farm communities that believe that we should be able to have a vibrant agricultural economy and produce food without sacrificing safe drinking water."

Nitrate in water has been linked to blue-baby syndrome, kidney problems and thyroid cancer. The report estimates that providing safe drinking water to these farming communities will cost the state up to $36 million a year.

Firestone says because nitrate can take decades to filter into groundwater, the problem is only going to get worse unless there are significant changes in current agricultural practices, such as more targeted fertilizer application.

"What that means is that this issue can't be solved without agriculture making some significant changes in the way it currently and has used fertilizer and manure to grow food."

She says while some farmers are already voluntarily changing their practices, the state needs to implement a program that ensures wide-scale adoption of farm practices that protect water quality.

More information is at

Lori Abbott, Public News Service - CA