Water quality projects receive $1M in USDA grants

Agricultural pollution, in the form of nitrogen and phosphorus runoff, can contaminate nearby water sources and harm the health of residents – and lower their property values.

Cathy Kling

Cathy Kling, the Tisch University Professor of Environmental, Energy and Resource Economics in the Cornell SC Johnson College of Business, is collaborating on two new projects, funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture, that will evaluate the economic impact this pollution has on water quality in rural communities in the Midwest.

The first project, which received a $500,000 grant, is a collaboration with researchers and extension staff from Iowa State University. Kling and her colleagues will study rural households whose well water could be at risk from agricultural pollutants, with a focus on whether home water-testing kits are effective and financially viable. 

“About 15% of people across the United States use private wells to get their own drinking water, and that water typically has not gone through a filtration plant,” said Kling, a faculty director for the Atkinson Center for a Sustainable Future. “If there are pollutants like nitrates in there, people are at risk of drinking them. But if they take proper precautions, like testing the well or putting in appropriate devices, the water can be perfectly fine. This project is to really figure out whether people are doing that, and whether they have enough information to be treating their water.”

For the second project, which received a $496,265 grant, Kling will be working with researchers from the University of Wisconsin, Madison, and Iowa State University to build an integrated assessment model to examine the economic impact agriculture-polluted water has on property values in the Upper Mississippi River Basin.

The research team will then assess the cost-benefits of federal programs that seek to address the problem.

“These water quality problems are big, and they’re going to be expensive to fix,” said Kling, a co-principal investigator on both projects. “The only way we can do that is if we try to understand the relationship between pollution, cleanup approaches and the benefits we get from those, as well as the costs. If we have that kind of information, we can improve our policy choices and make our tax dollars go a lot further for the environment.”

David Nutt is managing editor of the Atkinson Center.

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