Watching Our Water

How does pristine water running off of snowpack high in the Rocky Mountains end up as a floating chemical ‘dead-zone’ in the waters of the Gulf of Mexico?

“Watching Our Water,” a TV program and a series of radio and online reports from Harvest Public Media, explores that question and the role of agriculture in our supply of clean water. Because on top of worrying about the question of quantity, residents in farm country also worry about the quality of their fresh water supply.

Fanning out across the West and Midwest, Harvest reporters illuminate the challenges facing farmers, scientists and engineers. We’ll examine how chemicals and nutrients seep into fresh water, the dangers that poses, and what can be done about it.

The “Watching our Water” public television program is a production of the Harvest Public Media Video Unit at NET in Nebraska, with production partners KCPT in Kansas City and Rocky Mountain PBS in Denver, Colorado. It is produced with support from CPB, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.


Want to dig a little deeper?

Harvest Public Media reporters and producers traveled all over the Midwest and talked with national experts to get the facts on what impacts our water supply. Check out all of our reporting, and where it came from:



Standing on a platform above the eastern bank of the Missouri River at the Kansas City, Missouri, Water Services’ intake plant is like being on the deck of a large ship.

Electric turbines create a vibration along the blue railing, where David Greene, laboratory manager for Kansas City Water Services, looks out across the river. Water the color of chocolate milk is sucked up and forced through screens below, picking up all the debris the river carries downstream.  

Farming in the fertile Midwest is tied to an environmental disaster in the Gulf of Mexico. But scientists are studying new ways to lessen the Midwest’s environmental impact and improve water quality.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) forecasts the so-called “dead zone,” an area of sea without enough oxygen to support most marine life, to grow larger than the size of Connecticut, or roughly 6,000 square miles.  

On a gray day, just as the rain begins to fall, Roger Zylstra stops his red GMC Sierra pick-up truck on the side of the road and hops down into a ditch in Jasper County, Iowa. It takes two such stops before he unearths amid the tall weeds and grasses what he’s looking for.

“Here is one of the tiles,” he says, pointing to a pipe about six or eight inches in diameter. Water trickles from it into a culvert that runs under the road after flowing through a network of underground drainage lines below his farm field. “That’s where it outlets.”

Living in the Platte River Valley in central Nebraska means understanding that the water in your well may contain high levels of nitrates and may not be safe to drink.

“When our first son was born in 1980, we actually put a distiller in for our drinking water here in the house,” says Ken Seim, who lives in the Platte Valley near the town of Chapman, Nebraska. “And at that time our water level was a 12 parts per million.”

Contaminated drinking water isn’t just a problem for Flint, Michigan. Many towns and cities across the Midwest and Great Plains face pollution seeping into their water supplies. A big part of the problem: farming and ranching.