When I lead a Save Our Streams water quality monitoring training, I usually ask the attendees "Why is clean water important?" Different people respond in different ways – maybe they value clean water for paddling or fishing, ecosystem services, aesthetic beauty, or simply safety and human health. Of course, all of these factors (and more) are important. Unfortunately, all of them are threatened by nitrate pollution.
Iowans have become all too familiar with nitrate and its impact on water quality. This pollutant, common in agricultural runoff, sets in motion a cascade of ecosystem effects when it's delivered to waterways, causing algae blooms, fish kills, and hypoxic dead zones.
The human health impact of nitrate is perhaps less widely understood but no less important. When we consume drinking water that contains excess nitrate, it can lead to conditions like blue baby syndrome, thyroid disease, birth defects, and cancers. Public water systems are required to remove nitrate in excess of the 10 mg/L drinking water standard, but this protection is not in place for private groundwater wells. Moreover, scientists have observed adverse health impacts even when nitrate concentrations are below the 10 mg/L standard.
Nitrate pollution is a sprawling, complex issue with its roots in major industries. It can be difficult to feel that we as individuals have the ability to affect change when an issue looms so large. This is one of the reasons the Izaak Walton League is so excited to invite volunteers to participate in the Nitrate Watch program, which takes a hands-on approach to combatting nitrate pollution.
Nitrate Watch engages volunteers from across the country in monitoring nitrate pollution. Volunteers request test kits, including nitrate test strips and instructions, at nitratewatch.org. These kits are free (while supplies last!), making participation accessible for all. Volunteers can monitor nitrate levels in surface water (such as streams, rivers, lakes, and others), as well as drinking water (including public drinking water systems and private wells).