Drinking problems

The friendly waitress at the Pretty Prairie Steak House delivers tumblers of tap water as soon as diners take their seats. Across Main Street, the Wagon Wheel Café offers the same courtesy. Customers may also order coffee or iced tea, but it all starts at the same tap, and everyone is fine with that. This blasé attitude about drinking water surprised me: everyone in this little farm town in Reno County, Kansas, knew beyond the shadow of a doubt that the liquid flowing from the municipal water tower was highly contaminated with nitrate, a chemical compound derived from fertilizer and connected to thyroid problems and various cancers. At the time I visited Pretty Prairie, last fall, nitrate levels there were more than double the federal standard for safe drinking water.

When the Kansas Department of Health and Environment first notified Pretty Prairie that its water was out of compliance, twenty-nine years ago, the town collectively shrugged. After all, the water tasted and smelled normal. (Nitrate has no flavor or odor.) No one I spoke to had noticed abnormally high cancer rates, nor had anyone seen a case of blue baby syndrome, a nitrate-linked disease in which infants’ blood does not supply enough oxygen to their bodies. “A lot of us grew up drinking this water,” Mike Seyb, the mayor, told me, “and we’re healthy.”

The years passed. People died or moved away; families settled in town; and a few folks installed reverse-osmosis filtration units under their kitchen sinks. Still, most preferred to do nothing at all. Pretty Prairie considered a few high-tech solutions, such as building a filtration plant, but that would have cost an estimated $800,000, a steep price for a community with around 320 ratepayers, a median household income of $33,167, and an annual budget of less than $1 million. And so nitrate levels continued to rise, eventually topping 20 parts per million. (The federal limit is 10 ppm.) In 2015, word came down from on high: the Environmental Protection Agency was issuing a formal “notice of violation” to Pretty Prairie for its noncompliance with the Safe Drinking Water Act. By then, the projected cost of building a treatment plant, plus an underground storage tank and a new water tower, had risen to some $2 million. A federal grant—if it came through—would cover only part of a new plant’s construction costs.

When I first heard about Pretty Prairie’s predicament, I wondered how a town of roughly six hundred could possibly clean up its water without going broke. But the more time I spent there, the less interested I was in how the community might resolve its problem and the more interested I became in why it had taken so long to take action against the farmers who had polluted its water supply. Only a few residents worked the surrounding fields. The others had jobs in the schools or the nursing home, or commuted to nearby Hutchinson. But it was fertilizer applied to the farmland, according to several hydrogeological studies, that had contaminated the area’s groundwater. Why had the townsfolk, who drank this water, not insisted that the farmers either control their nitrogen or foot the bill for its removal? Why, for so long, had Pretty Prairie mopped a flooded floor, rather than turn off a running spigot?

Courtesy of Harper’s Magazine

At 7:45 a.m. on a windy day last October, the Wagon Wheel Café had only one customer. I asked the proprietor and sole employee, Henrietta Duran, for milk with my coffee, but the place sees so little traffic, she said, that it’s hard to keep the fresh stuff on hand. She slid over a container of powdered creamer and a copy of the extremely thin Hutchinson News, published from the county seat, which led with features about a local who now worked for NASA and milo fields under attack from aphids.

I was on page 2 when Nellie Graber entered. Graber, who is sixty-seven and wears her white hair long and loose, owned the guesthouse where I was sleeping, plus 800 acres of farmland outside town, which she was leasing to a cattle rancher. She told me that her great-grandfather came over from Russia as a child, just as the town was beginning to develop. Her grandparents ran the hardware store, her mother taught music at the primary school, and her father farmed. He also helped found Pretty Prairie’s “night rodeo” in the 1930s. “A family friend we called Aunt Alma used to ride sidesaddle in Victorian costume for the Grand Entry,” Graber told me. The night rodeo is the largest in the state; it still operates for four days every July and still features mutton busting—an event in which kids race sheep bareback.

I set down my coffee cup: “Your family came here from Russia?” Graber ordered scrambled eggs and explained that in the early 1760s, Catherine the Great, born a German princess, attracted foreigners, including Swiss and German Mennonites, to her adopted nation with promises of exemption from military service, freedom from religious persecution, and gifts of land. Later, facing increasing nationalism in central Europe in the 1860s, Russia threatened to revoke the Mennonites’ military exemption. Sensing an opportunity, agents of the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway Company began recruiting, looking to settle farmers—potential customers—along its tracks. Between 1874 and 1880, an estimated 10,000 Mennonites in southern Russia immigrated to the United States. It’s said that the winter wheat planted in Kansas today is heir to the Turkey Red seeds carried out of Russia by the ancestors of people like Graber.

In sod houses heated with buffalo chips, the Mennonites struggled at first. They died from injuries and starvation; they suffered scorching summers, plagues of grasshoppers, lightning fires, hailstorms, blizzards, and temperatures that swooned to twenty-four below. But the land was fertile and achingly beautiful—golden, rolling plains interrupted by tree-shaded draws. Gradually, the immigrants built up their farmsteads, adapted to local conditions, and began filling railcars with livestock, produce, and grain.

The government established a post office in the budding town in 1874—a can for mail collection planted outside the home of Mary Collingwood, an Indiana widow who, in search of land, had stepped off a wagon with her nine children just two years earlier. Though pressured by neighbors to name the new town after herself, according to local legend, Collingwood insisted on something more descriptive. Pretty Prairie was officially incorporated in 1907, and three years later had grown to 327 people, with a bank, feed mills, two grain elevators, a telegraph office, and three postal routes.

Through much of the twentieth century, the town bustled. Graber remembered two supermarkets, a slaughterhouse, a communal meat locker, two hardware stores, and 120 students in her high school. The town even got a touch of Hollywood glamour when the grain heiress Diantha Collingwood, Mary’s great-granddaughter, was briefly married to—and living on a local farm with—Carl “Alfalfa” Switzer of Little Rascals fame.

But the texture of life in town would soon change. In the 1970s, government policies favoring large-scale farming began to take their toll on places like Pretty Prairie. Giant farms that owned big trucks could haul their grain to distant buyers who offered higher rates than the local elevator, a practice that drained revenue from the railroad and contributed to its eventual abandonment. When the trains stopped coming and big-box stores opened in Hutchinson, Graber told me, “the town started to fall apart. Now it’s stranded.” Today, many of Pretty Prairie’s storefronts are empty—the town no longer has a supermarket—and just seventy-two teenagers, drawn from a wide area, attend the high school.

Finished with her breakfast, Graber drove me past endless fields of grain to see her own rolling farmland, dotted with red and black cattle. The mixed-grass prairie that so entranced Mary Collingwood—dancing with butterflies and bright flowers—had now been almost completely plowed for crops or converted to pasture. Graber drew my attention to a neighbor’s pile of bulldozed trees. Area farmers, some of whom work several thousand acres, she said, were cutting their shelterbelts—the Osage oranges, cedars, and elms planted in the aftermath of the Dust Bowl to keep soil in place and slow the relentless winds. “They need more space for turning big equipment,” she said. “They want more land in production.”

Reno County is 93 percent farmland, and while its soils range from clay to sand to loam, and periods of rain are often followed by drought, the widespread adoption of synthetic fertilizer and center-pivot irrigation has significantly increased the region’s output. One late afternoon, I set off with Darrin Unruh—a seed salesman and city council member who lives in Pretty Prairie with his wife and two teenaged daughters—to see what these advancements had wrought. Just outside Yoder, which is even tinier than Pretty Prairie, Unruh stepped on the brake and turned in to a former airfield, where a thirty-foot wall of grain, snug under a white sheet of plastic, rose from the tarmac. Harvested in the spring of 2016, the winter wheat—more than 5 million bushels, or enough for at least 200 million loaves of bread—awaited a buyer. Driving parallel to this densely packed berm at a stately pace, Unruh consulted his odometer: “Six tenths of a mile,” he said, impressed.

In the gloaming, we turned south for Pretty Prairie, passing combines harvesting this year’s soybeans and milo, and tractors planting the seeds of next season’s wheat. “There was a record yield in 2016,” Unruh said. (Corn and soybeans also set state records.) By the time we pulled into town, stars dappled the black-velvet sky and the potholed streets were empty. I hopped out of the truck, anticipating a profound silence, but the industrial fans of the grain elevator, looming like a brutalist skyscraper in the center of town, were roaring at full bore.

Consumption of the nitrogen fertilizers that built walls of wheat and stuffed grain elevators has nearly tripled nationwide since the early 1960s. The growth has been a boon for grain buyers but a bane for those who manage drinking-water supplies. That’s because plants absorb only an estimated 50 percent of the nitrogen applied as fertilizer, leaving the rest to sluice into surface water or groundwater with snowmelt, rain, or irrigation. Largely because of the overapplication of fertilizer or animal manures, which are also rich in nitrogen, about 118 public water systems—most in heavily farmed areas of Kansas, Texas, Oklahoma, and California—are currently out of compliance with the federal nitrate standard.

After the state first warned Pretty Prairie about its nitrate levels in 1989, the town began exploring its options. It decided to provide free bottled water to pregnant women, nursing mothers, and the roughly six infants born there each year. On a larger scale, it considered building a chemical ion-exchange system, to be partially funded with a $250,000 state grant. But before a shovel could hit the ground, the town changed its mind. “We learned we had no reliable place to dispose of the plant’s waste,” Ed Markel, an engineer who owns the Pretty Prairie Steak House and lives just beyond the city limits, told me. A 1990 edition of the Ninnescah Valley News summarized the situation in what would become a typical front-page headline: problem needs more study.

Courtesy of Harper’s Magazine

In 1994, Pretty Prairie opted to drill a new well on the northeast edge of town, where nitrates were well below the federal limit. But as the town pulled from this well over the next year, the level rose to 9 ppm, and then higher. Unable to find a cleaner water source, Pretty Prairie signed a consent order with the state in 1996 that allowed its bottled-water remedy to continue as long as the town notified residents of nitrate levels and adopted a wellhead protection program, in which nearby farmers were asked to apply fertilizer conservatively. If the water supply exceeded 15 ppm for two of three consecutive quarters, the town would be required to study potential remedies. If it exceeded 20 ppm in two of three quarters, it would be required to actually implement one.

To hit its marks, Pretty Prairie waxed creative. It sampled during droughts, hoping recently applied fertilizer hadn’t trickled down from soil to groundwater. It sampled after heavy rains, hoping nitrates would be diluted. It even tried sending samples to different labs to find the lowest possible results. “It was amazing what a difference that made,” said the city clerk, Patti Brace, seated at a long table in city hall, which doubles as the library. All they had to do was get one good sample in a quarter to break the chain of enforcement. “We did that for a long, long time. We put off any remediation for as long as we possibly could, and we had the backing of the public on it.”

Mindful of its consent order, the town continued to consult with geologists and engineering firms, which tested wells, analyzed water chemistry, measured flow rates, and estimated the costs of various treatment options. Meanwhile, residents and visitors continued to drink from the tap, while farmers modestly tweaked their fertilizer use. In 2007, nitrate levels rose above 15 ppm for two straight quarters. In accordance with the consent order, the town commissioned a feasibility study to explore solutions once again. As the years passed, state officials seemed to grow frustrated. Acknowledging the huge financial hurdle that a remedy would pose for such a small town, Darrel R. Plummer, the chief of the Kansas Department of Health and Environment’s public water supply section, wrote to the EPA’s regional office in May 2013:

We have got to find better, less costly, solutions to bring these small aging/dying communities into compliance with drinking water rules . . . or just decide to ignore them, like Pretty Prairie, until the communities just fade away.

The EPA seemed to choose the latter option, at least until 2014, when, for two successive quarters, nitrate concentrations topped 20 ppm. The agency filed their notice of violation the next year: it was time for Pretty Prairie to act.

Like many other towns with contaminated water, Pretty Prairie considered consolidation—in this case, laying a fourteen-mile pipeline to Kingman, which drew from a cleaner water source, but according to Wyatt Hoch, a lawyer who has long served as Pretty Prairie’s counsel on water issues, that town wasn’t keen on selling off a portion of their own supply. Moreover, Brace said, “We didn’t want to come under Kingman’s thumb if they raised the water rates.” Another idea, installing a filter on everyone’s kitchen tap, was discouraged by the state. It wouldn’t protect people who visited for the rodeo or high school football games, and who would be responsible for changing those filters? The only workable solution, the town reluctantly acknowledged, was to build a reverse-osmosis plant. But first, it needed to apply for a $500,000 federal block grant. The paperwork was filed on time, but an inaccurately recorded date resulted in rejection. As rumors circulated that the mistake had been intentional, Pretty Prairie applied for an even larger grant, shortly before I visited. The message from the state and feds, Brace recalled, was clear: “Enough.”

 

Nationwide, utilities spend more than $5 billion a year removing nitrates from drinking water via filters and chemicals. With plenty of ratepayers to share the burden, the price tag is usually manageable. Many rural communities, however, rely on funds from ever-shrinking U.S. Department of Agriculture programs to build these treatment plants, which can cost tens of thousands of dollars a year to operate. That is, if you can even find someone to do the job properly. “Small towns find it harder and harder to obtain and retain certified operators for these systems,” said Elmer Ronnebaum, of the Kansas Rural Water Association. A 2004 study by a USDA researcher reported that being on call 24/7 leads to a high rate of burnout. Also, not everyone wants to live in a town without a supermarket.

The cheaper, more efficient option, of course, is to reduce nitrate loss on farmland itself, before the chemical can reach the water supply. And so a few states have begun passing laws that limit where and when farmers can apply fertilizer to their fields. In Minnesota, farmers are required to plant vegetated buffers instead of crops along waterways, to soak up excess nutrients. And if local wells show rising nitrate levels, some farmers may soon be forbidden to fertilize in the fall and on frozen soils, when plants are far less able to absorb the nitrates.

State agriculture departments, as well as local conservation groups, academics, and some food corporations, including General Mills and Unilever, have also tried to persuade farmers in areas with high-nitrate water to better control their fertilizer. Offering technical expertise and small grants, some of these groups encourage farmers to plant strips of grasses, sedges, and forbs amid their crops to soak up nitrogen-laced runoff, and to sow cover crops such as cereal rye or alfalfa after harvesting their corn and soybeans, so that fields aren’t left bare in the winter months. Not only will these crops scavenge excess nitrogen from the soil, they’ll also improve soil quality and reduce the amount of fertilizer required by the next cash crop.

The USDA has been promoting cover cropping since at least 1915, but at last count it was standard on less than 3 percent of cropland nationally, and even less common in Kansas. Among Pretty Prairie grain producers, the practice is equally rare. The agronomists and retailers who advise farmers—and profit off fertilizer sales—have no incentive to promote it. For many, cover cropping is prohibitively expensive, with some species’ seeds costing up to $40 an acre. Planting and terminating the crop costs even more. The USDA offers a cost-share program for farmers planting cover crops for the first time, but the practice typically pays off only after several years. This is a sacrifice few can afford to make. Given the recent history of high yields and low prices, Darrin Unruh told me, “the farm economy sucks.”

Another challenge is managing the labor and equipment required for cover cropping on a large farm that’s already running efficiently. “There’s a timing issue that holds us back,” Kirk Larson, who farms about 3,500 acres around Pretty Prairie, said. “You can’t harvest your cash crop and plant your cover crop at the same time.” Weather that’s increasingly unpredictable can whittle away at the hours farmers can operate, and heavy rains can make fields too soggy to support today’s enormous farm equipment. By the time the ground dries out, the opportunity to sow an additional crop may have vanished.

Courtesy of Harper’s Magazine

I asked Ed Markel, sitting in his large, richly furnished living room under the gaze of a bear he shot in Saskatchewan, how the land he owns in southeast Kansas is farmed. “It’s fertilized,” he said, acknowledging that the practice probably polluted the water. He understood how nitrogen moves through sandy soil to the groundwater, but he hadn’t pushed his tenants to change their practices. Cover crops and buffers would be great, he explained, “if you can get ’em to do it without a club.”

Other farmers doubted that the nitrates in Pretty Prairie’s water supply came from their own application of fertilizer. Rather, they said, the contamination was a legacy of the bad old days, when their fathers and grandfathers overapplied the stuff, believing that if a little was good, a lot was better. (Nitrates can linger in groundwater for decades.) Still others linked high nitrate levels to increased irrigation, which has contributed to the lowering of the water table and may have concentrated pollutants. Drought has a similar effect, and Pretty Prairie has experienced below-average precipitation in five of the past seven years.

Whatever your belief about the provenance of nitrates, Unruh had said to me when we visited the wheat pile, the bottom line is simple: “It’s counterproductive to tell farmers to change; it doesn’t help. And it is a sure way to cause division and unrest in a small community.”

It took me a while to fully understand this concept. I live in a large city where relatively few know my name or care where I’m from or where I’m going. In Pretty Prairie, however, I couldn’t walk down the street without someone greeting me or asking how my meeting with so-and-so had gone. They knew where I was sleeping—where else but at Nellie Graber’s guesthouse? And they knew where I was eating—Ed Markel’s steak house was practically the only game in town.

I knew that farming sustained the economy, but it took Bob Krehbiel, who grew up drinking nitrate-heavy water on his family’s dairy farm, to make explicit the centrality of nitrogen to the town’s existence. “If farmers quit fertilizing, it would destroy the community,” he said over a cup of tap-water tea at the struggling public golf course. Less fertilizer means lower yields, and if farmers earn less, they might default on loans, exacerbating the shrinking of the town. The Farmer’s Co-op, which sells fuel, would take a hit, as would the Schrag family, which sells fertilizer, and Darrin Unruh, who sells seed. The grain elevator would idle, Ed Markel would serve fewer steaks, and Henrietta Duran, at the Wagon Wheel, would scramble even fewer eggs than she does now. Real estate values would plummet, the school would shrivel, and only those too poor to leave would remain, further straining social services, not to mention the underfunded water utility.

“We are too small a town to have these battles,” Krehbiel, who served five terms as a state representative, summarized. “Our friends and neighbors are farmers. And that’s why we’re ignoring fertilizer on the ground, and the city is charged with taking it out.”

 

Before coming to Pretty Prairie, I paid a visit to Bill Stowe, the general manager of the Des Moines Water Works, in Iowa. In 2015, the utility had sued the supervisors of a number of upstream drainage districts—local political bodies that organize ditching and draining to improve agriculture. The Water Works claimed that farmers were pouring high levels of nitrates into the Raccoon River, the source of drinking water for half a million Iowans, through perforated pipes that underlay their fields. Tired of footing the bill to remove the contaminants and convinced that they posed a public health threat, the utility reasoned that the polluters themselves should bear some legal and economic responsibility.

The utility lost the case: in March 2017, a federal judge dismissed it, ruling that nitrate pollution was a matter for the state legislature to address. (It hasn’t, yet.) But when I asked him what he thought Pretty Prairie should do, Stowe didn’t hesitate with advice. Build the treatment plant, no matter the cost, he said. And because voluntary measures obviously do not work, pass laws that require farmers to reduce the amount of nitrates leaching into source water. “The public health science that brought us to ten parts per million—that wasn’t randomly selected,” Stowe said. “If you start getting to the point where you let people opt out of that based on personal circumstances, you are getting away from science. You are throwing the dice.”

So far, Pretty Prairie has been willing to take that gamble, and it seems to have beaten the odds. Sure, it has spent tens of thousands of dollars on tests, studies, and consultants, and its water rates have risen, but farmers have not been required to change how or when they apply fertilizer. Nor are they expected to anytime soon.

Waiting for the results of the federal grant application last fall, many residents hoped their stall tactics would pay off with a reprieve from Donald Trump or his regulation-busting EPA administrator, Scott Pruitt, at whose confirmation hearing Senator Jerry Moran testified. The Kansan at once told Pruitt the town would need “financial resources” to help build a treatment plant and expressed hope that Pruitt would “work with communities” on “commonsense solutions.” In other words, a continuation of the live-and-let-live approach with farmers and a bottled-water provision for those in town.

Betsy Southerland, who recently ended her thirty-three-year career at the EPA’s Office of Water, suspected that Pruitt might cut the town some slack. “He’ll do anything industry wants,” she said. “These are industrial-scale farms and they’re applying massive amounts of chemicals.” Pruitt’s EPA, she continued, doesn’t believe in taking preventive action. “But it’s an absolutely true fact that cleaning up contaminants upstream is an order of magnitude cheaper than taking action downstream.”

Late one afternoon, I visited both the First Mennonite cemetery, southeast of town, and the Lone Star, to its northeast. In both places, I noted a preponderance of Krehbiels, Grabers, Seybs, Schrags, Stuckys, and Unruhs. The headstones, dating from three centuries, spoke of large families and rootedness—the habit of sticking around to create businesses, till the earth, serve in local government, fill church pews, teach in the schools, and contribute to the semimonthly newspaper. If someone went away to college, or for work or marriage, they often came back to retire—“for the open space, the freedom,” as Bob Krehbiel put it. Or to die, with an interim stop at the Prairie Sunset Home.

I strolled around the Lone Star, buffeted by a persistent westerly. Over here, the grave of Alma L. Graber, of sidesaddle rodeo fame. Over there, the headstone of Tim Stucky, beloved editor and publisher of the Ninnescah Valley News, which is now in the steady hands of his wife, Nancy. By the entrance, a brace of Collingwoods, offspring of the widow who founded Pretty Prairie after stepping off that wagon train.

A combine chugged through an adjacent field, sending plumes of dust to the east. Climate change is expected to make Kansas less suitable for agriculture by the end of the twenty-first century—too hot and too dry. Farmers might adapt through increased irrigation, but the portion of the aquifer that underlies Pretty Prairie is depleted enough that the district has made it difficult to get a permit for new wells. Higher temperatures will make plants thirstier while also increasing rates of evaporation; droughts will last longer than they already do.

And what of the nitrate that will likely continue to appear in the town’s groundwater? This past November, Pretty Prairie received a $2.4-million loan from the state, in addition to the $600,000 federal grant, which was awarded in January. The town is scheduled to start stripping the chemical in its brand-new treatment plant next year. On the upside, some might say, the technology will obviate the need for farmers to change their practices, and bottled water will no longer be necessary. But the plant will devour energy, require constant maintenance, excrete nitrate-rich waste into the sewer, and squander water in backwashing its filters. Surely, if other farmers could still make a living while tweaking their use of synthetic fertilizers, enhancing soil health, and protecting groundwater, Pretty Prairie could, too.

But that’s not how Pretty Prairie sees it. After twenty-five years of debate and study, of big government breathing down its neck, the town is ready to move on. “If we build the plant,” Patti Brace had told me, “we won’t have to worry about water ever again.”

That may be true, but I suspected Brace’s sense of relief—and the community’s—was related more to social, rather than civil, engineering. A decision had been made: the farmers would do their best, within the bounds of their economies, and the townsfolk—with a onetime boost from the feds—would continue uncomplainingly to clean up after them.

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