While nitrates are expected in agricultural farming (anywhere pesticides and fertilizers are used, they are absorbed into the roots of the foods being grown), excessive amounts of them can reach toxic levels in the water system. This problematic situation has been looked into however, slow-moving laws and political efforts are not helping to address changes that need to be made sooner rather than later. That’s why a pilot program is being eyed as having huge potential to reduce agricultural fertilizer pollution such as nitrates.

Such pollution is occurring in California’s Salinas Valley where, due to the fact that the area produces a significant amount of crops, farmers’ use of pesticides and fertilizers is very high. In fact, the area is dubbed “the salad bowl of America” for its wide range of foods that make their way to stores and restaurants around the nation.

However, a domino effect of sorts takes place when too much nitrate enters the soil, which is a given in the area considering the high use of fertilizers. With roots that have reached their nitrate-absorption capacity, nitrate has no alternative but to become runoff that eventually ends up in bays and aquifers. The dominoes continue to fall, one event triggering another, as these water sources then reach toxic, undrinkable levels.

Making a “huge dent on water quality,” eye on continued successes

The solution, however, seems to be well on its way to vast improvement thanks to a couple of determined, environmentally savvy men. Ross Clark, director of the Central Coast Wetlands Group, a research group at California State University’s (CSU) Moss Landing Marine Laboratories, and CSU Monterey Bay professor Fred Watson have come up with a fix to address the problem.

Their man-made endeavour is simple and, so far, proving effective. They planted cattails on a few acres of poor-quality land, which created a makeshift wetland in the middle of farmland. Because it is man-made, water that typically would flow through a ditch is pumped into their wetland, and then from there toward the ocean. Doing this has brought about impressive changes to water quality that basically involves the creation of an environment whereby nitrates are converted to a harmless gas that naturally gets released into the atmosphere.

Furthermore, Clark and Watson have found that their man-made wetland has the potential to not only banish nitrate toxicity but it also gets rid of pathogens and pesticides. For example, they found that Giardia, a common waterborne parasite, and the pesticide diazinon went down by over 20 percent.

“We think we can make a huge dent on water quality,” said Clark.(1)

Indeed they have observed that from the time water flows into them to the time it leaves, nitrate levels are reduced by a whopping 50 percent. However, because the waters are so polluted, even this significant nitrate reduction doesn’t meet the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency drinking-water standard of 10 parts per million (ppm). However it can get very close – as low as 15 ppm – a big improvement compared to the 45 ppm found in water that flows in.

Nitrate and its dangers to human health

According to the EPA, “Nitrates and nitrites are nitrogen-oxygen chemical units which combine with various organic and inorganic compounds,” and when nitrates exceed the maximum contaminant level goals (MCLG), devastating health consequences can follow. For example, the EPA notes that when too much nitrate (which becomes nitrite once in the body) is ingested, a person can “become seriously ill and, if untreated, may die. Symptoms include shortness of breath and blue baby syndrome.”

Its seriousness was also made known when Rhode Island Hospital researchers determined that there was a link between increased levels of nitrates in the environment and food, and increased deaths from Alzheimer’s and diabetes. The study honed in on the nitrates that seep into the soil during crop fertilization and ultimately contaminate drinking water.

While Clark and Watson’s efforts may take years as several dozen crop cycles are planted and harvested, their solution seems well-worth implementing.

They refer to it as “better science,” and though Watson said that “It would be great if we were moving 10 times quicker,” he optimistically added, “but we are taking the next step.”