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Researchers: Flood-drought cycle can deteriorate drinking water

A study by the University of Kansas indicates a drought-flood cycle could result in excess nitrogen in the surface water supply, with extra costs to making the water safe for drinking.

By
Ed Adamczyk
Kansas University researchers say whiplash weather, a drought and flood cycle caused by climate change, can lead to excessive amounts of nitrogen in water sources, and high costs to make the water drinkable. Photo by Caitlin Penna/EPA
Kansas University researchers say "whiplash weather," a drought and flood cycle caused by climate change, can lead to excessive amounts of nitrogen in water sources, and high costs to make the water drinkable. Photo by Caitlin Penna/EPA

March 31 (UPI) -- Extreme changes in weather will lead to deterioration in the quality of drinking water, Kansas University researchers say in a report.

The findings, published in the journal Biogeochemistry, indicate that "whiplash weather," in which weather veers from drought to flood, for example, will lead to changes in farm production, with particular concern about how it will affect fertilizer use.

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Those changes will result in nitrogen and other nutrients washed into surface water, from which drinking water is taken, and the degraded water could cost millions to clean, the researchers report.

"Farmers put on their normal amount of fertilizer, but when we have a drought, plants don't grow as big and don't take up as much nitrogen," Terry Loecke, co-author of the study, said in a press release. "Instead of going into the plants, which would be harvested, it stays in the soil -- and no water is flushing it away."

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The abnormal amount of nitrogen remains in the soil until a deluge, the researchers say, which will cause later problems down the road.

"The soil is like a sponge, and when it's dry the nitrogen stays put, but as soon as you wet it, like when you wring a sponge, the nitrogen can flood into the rivers," added co-author Amy Burgin.

Remediating high nitrogen content in drinking water will involve the construction of new water treatment facilities, straining taxpayers, the report says.

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Loecke cited an Iowa drought and flood cycle in 2012 and 2013, which resulted in a nitrogen increase in water and the construction of a $4.1 million nitrate removal plant costing $7,000 per day to operate.

"Increased weather whiplash will, in part, increase the frequency of riverine N [river-borne nitrogen] exceeding EPA drinking water standards. Thus, our observations suggest increased climatic variation will amplify negative trends in water quality in a region already grappling with severe impairments," researchers wrote in the report.

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