Kansas Researchers Say Climate Change Will Deteriorate Midwest Water Quality

May 16, 2017

Following periods of drought, heavy rains and flooding can flush nitrate out of dry soil and into drinking water. In 2016, the Cedar River flooded areas of northeast Iowa, shown here.
Credit Tech. Sgt. Linda Burger / Iowa National Guard

Midwesterners are used to extreme weather. We take pride in enduring everything from torrential downpours to the most desiccating drought.

Climate change is expected to increase the frequency of these fluctuations between drought and flood, though, according to new research published by scientists at the University of Kansas, and this "weather whiplash" will deteriorate the quality of drinking water.

Terry Loecke and Amy Burgin, co-authors of the study, examined a particular pollutant, nitrate. It is a nutrient for crops and is a common ingredient in fertilizer.

"Drought tends to stop nutrients from entering our water systems," says Loecke, who teaches environmental science. The nutrients accumulate in the soil when it is dry and, when heavy rain comes along, the nitrate that is not absorbed by plants as food is flushed into the water system.

"We've got a problem," says Loecke, and "it's going to get worse with how precipitation is projected to change in the next century."

Amy Burgin and Terry Loecke, both originally from Iowa, have been studying nitrates and water quality for more than a decade.
Credit The University of Kansas

Loecke and Burgin, who both work with the Kansas Biological Survey, spoke with Steve Kraske on a recent episode of KCUR's Up To Date.

Their research focuses on water quality in Iowa, which has some of the most robust nutrient monitoring in the nation, says Burgin.

"Iowa has I think close to 60 of these real-time nitrate sensors, which puts it way ahead of most other states, so the data is available there," Burgin says. "Kansas had five [of the sensors], and Missouri has two that we could find."

While the scientists note that drinking water in the Kansas City area is still under nitrate limits set by the Environmental Protection Agency, there are clusters of communities that do struggle with nitrate levels.

"There are certainly areas [in Kansas where] nitrate is one of the more common drinking water violations," Burgin says.

KCUR has previously reported on one rural Kansas community, Pretty Prairie, which is struggling to fund a new treatment plant and meet EPA requirements for drinking water. The tap water in Pretty Prairie has exceeded allowable nitrate levels since the mid-1990s.

This new study, published in the journal Biogeochemistry, is one of the first to link climate change and water quality, says Burgin, so more research is needed to understand how best to prevent nitrate spikes in drinking water.

"There clearly need to be partnerships between urban centers and rural areas," says Burgin, "because we we all share this water as a resource and what happens within a watershed doesn't stay right at the source."

You can listen to Steve Kraske's entire conversation with soil scientist Terry Loecke and water quality expert Amy Burgin here.

Luke X. Martin is the associate producer of KCUR's 'Up To Date.' Contact him at luke@kcur.org.