Water towers

A pair of water towers stand over the Yellowstone Boys and Girls Ranch. Testing of the ranch's water by the nonprofit Environmental Working Group revealed elevated nitrate levels in its water supply; ranch officials have since ordered a temporary switch to bottled water, drilled new wells, and redirected its plumbing.

LARRY MAYER, Gazette Staff

It’s safe to say the grass is always greener in Flaxville, but the reasons behind it, Mayor Connie Wittak would confirm, aren’t very envious.

A stone’s throw from Canada, the northeast Montana community of fewer than 100 people has abundant nitrates in its water, which has for years grown Flaxville’s lawns, gardens and the town budget beyond expectations.

Monday, the community’s water system made a list of 26 Montana drinking water suppliers challenged by either high nitrate levels or total trihalomethanes. It’s a dubious recognition related at least in some cases to farm runoff.

The Environmental Working Group rounded up tap water data for almost 50,000 United States utilities where nitrates and trohalomethanes are a problem. EWG is a nonprofit, federal policy watchdog that focuses on food, farming, and consumer safety and health. It’s known for its searchable farm subsidy database that lists payouts to individual U.S. farmers.

In Montana, the list of community water suppliers stretched from Flathead Valley to Froid. Hutterite colonies populated the list along with mobile home parks and small towns drawing water from the Yellowstone or Missouri rivers.

Wittak wasn’t sure Flaxville’s nitrates were caused by nitrogen fertilizer on area crops. The town is surrounded by land enrolled in the federal Conservation Reserve Program, and therefore off-limits to nitrogen.

“Just coming out of the ground, it’s 14 parts per million. It’s just natural. We’ve always had high nitrates,” Wittak said. “We had a high spike that was way off the charts. The state had to come in and help us. We had to haul water. But it’s under 2 parts per million now.”

Two parts per million is well within that safe zone for nitrates. The Environmental Protection Agency sounds the alarm when nitrate levels surpass 10 parts per million. The concern is that high nitrate levels can sicken children, even kill infants younger than six months if untreated. Fertilizer, leaking septic tanks, sewage, erosion and natural deposits are sources, according to EPA.

Total trihalomethanes, or TTHMS, are a byproduct of disinfecting drinking water with chlorine. When chlorine chemicals bind with organic compounds, TTHMS are formed. Over years of drinking water with TTHMS levels exceeding 80 parts per billion, people can develop liver, kidney and central nervous system problems. Cancer risk also increases.

EWG is asking Congress, as lawmakers draft a new farm bill, to require farmers to minimize the overuse of fertilizers and limit soil runoff that can contaminate nearby public water supplies. The goal is to treat the cause of drinking water problems rather than treat the water after it’s contaminated, said Craig Cox.

When it comes to TTHMS, it’s the chlorine treatment that compounds the water quality problem. Cutting the organic compounds from the water at the outset would help, Cox said.

“It’s an example of the contradiction of our drinking water systems in the U.S.,” Cox said. “We rely almost entirely on treatment and do almost nothing on prevention. The best solution is to reduce the organic matter from the get-go, which in Montana would mean farmers upriver using conservation and pollution prevention practices to keep manure and fertilizer out of the water to start with.”

Cutting back on nitrogen use would be a step for using nitrates, Cox said. Handling nitrogen fertilizer with care would be another. When the fertilizer is stored in piles on the ground, it's highly concentrated and does leach into the soil.

It’s hard to determine whether nitrogen is the actual cause of nitrates in water, said John Youngberg of the Montana Farm Bureau Federation.

“No one has been able to say where nitrates are coming from,” Youngberg said. “They could come from woody debris on the river bank, or naturally from the ground. There are lots of places nitrates come from.”

Nitrogen isn’t cheap, and because of the cost farmers are looking for ways to make sure that most of the fertilizer is going to crops, not downstream, Youngberg said. The fertilizer is better managed today than it was in past, Youngberg said, and nitrogen will be better managed in the future, as well.

However the nitrogen and phosphates runoff from farms is implicated in damaging the Mississippi River Basin. Fertilizer used in the Midwest has increased significantly over the last 25 years, according the U.S. Geological Survey. Nitrogen has been implicated in depleting oxygen in the water. Dead zones have developed in the Gulf of Mexico where the lack of oxygen in gulf water over several miles kills fish that swim into it.

Closer to home, nitrates in drinking water can pose real problems for humans. The Yellowstone Boys and Girls Ranch west of Billings switched to bottled water after nitrate levels were elevated at the live-in schools drinking water supply. The ranch has drilled new wells away from its original well site and is now redirecting its plumbing to the new source, which hasn’t been cheap.

The ranch is surrounded by farming and ranching operations, but the source of the nitrates still isn’t certain, said Michael Chavers, ranch CEO.

“We switched to bottled water and drilled some new wells in order to get water that would pass safety standards,” Chavers said. “Yes, nitrates can come from agriculture and fertilizer, but there’s also naturally occurring nitrates. My understanding is we can’t find the source.”

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Agriculture and Politics Reporter

Politics and agriculture reporter for The Billings Gazette.