Water Resource Engineering (WRE) connects engineering hydrology and hydraulics with global, environmental, economic, and societal issues. Our student, Christian Hill, makes this connection here…

The article, “The Problem is Clear, The Water is Filthy”, was written by Patricia Leigh Brown. The piece was published in The New York Times on November13th, 2012 both online and in print. The issue being talked relates to the domain of Hydrology, and specifically addresses a certain instance of water quality problems due to contamination. The town of Seville, CA has been dealing with water quality issues for decades. Their drinking water has been polluted consistently by chemical fertilizers, animal waste, pesticides, and other agricultural by-product runoff. These substances have found their way into Seville’s aquifers and ground water, contaminating the tap water over time. This leads to very unsafe nitrate (NO3) levels in the water, which an estimation of 20% of the towns in Seville’s county, Tulare, has a problem with, according to a United Nations Representative. A study by the University of California estimated that last year, 254,000 people out of the 2.6 million people living in the Tulare Basin and Salinas Valley were at risk for nitrate contamination. Based on the extent of my knowledge about WRE, this article is fairly accurate. Agricultural contamination is a major problem when it comes to ground water in rural areas. Nitrates are a common by-product of agricultural products, especially manure and manure-based fertilizers, and it would make sense that they would continue to contaminate the water even after the initial use. Mahler, Colter, and Hirnyck (2007) articulate that nitrate is highly soluble in water and difficult to remove. Furthermore, they say that water with NO3-N levels of 10 ppm and above should not be consumed, as it has health risks associated with it. Natural groundwater concentrations of NO3-N normally occur around 2 ppm, and ingestion of water contaminated with nitrate by infants can lead to “blue baby syndrome”, when an infant’s blood loses the ability to hold a normal amount of oxygen in the blood (Nolan, et. al., 1988). After having read the article, I thought the author did a fairly good job of including all the relevant information. However, I would have liked to see more information on what actions the federal or state governments have done in the past to address this problem, seeing as it is obviously not the first occurrence.

This issue has broad environmental and societal undertones. Nitrate contamination from farming is an obvious environmental issue, and reveals societal problems that we continue to face. The situation in Seville is a good representation of what is going on in many parts of the world. Farming and agricultural production is normally practiced in an unsafe way because there is a need to produce mass amounts of food in order to support a growing population. This leads to water contamination in communities that do not have enough money or political standing to do anything about it or, in many cases, even be recognized. This shows that not only are we as a society failing to do anything about the unsafe environmental effects of unsafe farming practices, but we are also failing to recognize as a society the effect it has on people that may not have any connection to us. The World Resources Institute (1998) reports that, “… individual country reports indicate that nitrate is one of the most common chemical contaminants found in drinking water.” This is assuredly because of its use as a fertilizer. The direct cause-effect relationship found here is that nitrate-based fertilizers are used world-wide in fertilizer, and this is slowly causing an increase in drinking water contamination.


Figure 1. Jim Wilson/The New York Times
An unlined animal waste lagoon at a Tulare County farm.

Works Cited

California Farms Get Testy Over Water Quality. 2012. Photograph. Shutterstock, California. Pacific Standard. By Richard Thornton. 15 Mar. 2012. Web. 19 Feb. 2013. <http://www.psmag.com/environment/california-farms-get-testy-over-water-quality-40379/&gt;.

Mahler, Robert L., Alex Colter, and Ronda Hirnyck. “Nitrate and Groundwater.” University of Idaho, July 2007. Web. 18 Feb. 2013. <http://www.cals.uidaho.edu/edcomm/pdf/CIS/CIS0872.pdf>.

“Nitrate Contamination from Fertilizer and Manure.” World Resources Institute. N.p., 1996. Web. 18 Feb. 2013. <http://www.wri.org/publication/content/8439&gt;.

Nolan, Bernard T., Barbara C. Ruddy, Kerie J. Hitt, and Dennis R. Helsel. “National Look at Nitrate Contamination of Ground Water.” Water Conditioning and Purification 39.12 (1988): 76-79. USGS. U.S. Geological Survey. Web. 18 Feb. 2013. <http://water.usgs.gov/nawqa/nutrients/pubs/wcp_v39_no12/>.