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This month’s issue of Harper’s has a long piece by Elizabeth Roye that’s worth reading just for its exploration of how difficult it is for rural areas to provide clean drinking water for their small populations when their way of life is already threatened.
It takes place in Pretty Prairie, Kansas, where the content of nitrates in the water—due to fertilizer used on farmland that comprises over 90 percent of the land—has, for decades, exceeded the limits established by the EPA.
A reverse-osmosis plant has always been only barely feasible economically, but as Royte learns, trying to get the farmers to stop using as much fertilizer is an equally challenging proposition: “Less fertilizer means lower yields, and if farmers earn less, they might default on loans, exacerbating the shrinking of the town.”
In the end, a place with 320 ratepayers has now borrowed enough to build a plant that can remove nitrates from the water, and the town clerk tells Royte, with relief, that they will never have to worry about water again.
“That may be true,” Royte writes, “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.”