If you read the newspaper or watch television, every year there are cases of people’s drinking contaminated water. There are many reasons why our water supply becomes contaminated. Unfortunately, research has shown that agriculture is one of the leading causes of ground and surface water contamination in North America.
The issue of water pollution is complicated and without easy answers. Water is capable of carrying contaminants over great distances. Pollutants are capable of damaging both surface and subsurface water systems. In addition, once contaminants enter our water systems they are difficult and expensive to remove. The primary agricultural contaminants in our water are sediments, pathogens, nutrients and pesticides.
Sediment pollution is caused by our not properly managing our soil and allowing excessive erosion to occur. Homesteaders have many methods they are able to utilize to reduce soil erosion. These include reduced tillage, planting cover crops and crop rotations. Soil that has eroded will clog drainage ditches and waterways, resulting in the need to dredge. Suspended sediment must be removed from drinking water and causes health problems for aquatic life.
Improper storage or handling of manures can easily lead to the introduction of a wide range of pathogens into water systems. A few examples of pathogens dangerous to people are E. coli, salmonella, giardia, campylobacter and Cryptosporidium parvum. Runoff water from around the homestead can introduce contaminated water into the environment. Manure pads, silos and buildings should have a means to collect runoff for safe storage. Ideally, a homesteader will have sufficient storage capacity for about 250 days-worth of manure. This allows the homesteader to apply the manure when it is needed.
Homesteaders may choose to feed plants fertilizers to encourage better growth and productivity. However, when you apply excessive amounts of fertilizer to crops not all of it is utilized. The leftover nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium can enter groundwater. Nitrogen and phosphorus are particularly hard on aquatic systems because they promote algae growth. The process is called eutrophication. It causes reduced levels of oxygen in the water that can kill aquatic life. Therefore, research how much fertilizer you will actually need and stick to that amount.
Pesticide use on the homestead in an unfortunate choice that many make because misuse of pesticides is a problem that affects everyone. Improper disposal and overuse has led to water systems becoming contaminated with chemicals such as atrazine, metolachlor and alachlor. Pesticides can cause a wide range of health problems even in small amounts. In many cases, you may not even realize your water supply is contaminated. Where possible, homesteaders should use pesticide alternatives to prevent their groundwater from becoming contaminated. But even if you choose not to use pesticides, others near you may. For that reason, people with private wells should have their water tested on a regular basis for contaminants.