Nine months ago, Hurricane Maria slammed Puerto Rico and damaged the system that feeds drinking water from the main island to Vieques. Moses West, 59, a retired Army officer from Texas, brought in the machine made by his company to help fill the void.
He spends his days beside it, fine-tuning the repurposed 20-foot shipping container, which is capable of producing 3,500 gallons of water daily and holding 528 gallons in storage.
Residents initially approached the machine and him with curiosity and skepticism, West said. They asked questions about how it worked and whether the water was clean. They also worried that he would return to the mainland and leave them to fend for themselves in the rubble of a paradise lost.
The machine is called an atmospheric water generator. It cools humid air until the water transforms from a gas to a liquid, otherwise known as condensation. The device pulls water from its gas form and filters it. The final product is clean, drinkable water.
The technology is more than a decade old, but the machines haven’t caught on, in part because few people know about them. The low market demand helps keep the price tag high, which again discourages potential buyers.
An estimated 9 to 10 percent of Wisconsin wells have tested over safe limits for nitrate.
Studies have estimated that 90% of nitrate in groundwater comes from spreading of synthetic fertilizers and dairy manure on farm fields, with most of the remainder from septic systems.
Nitrate behaves differently. Relatively little lingers near roots where it can be absorbed. Water washes it down into shallow groundwater that is the source of drinking water for one-quarter of Wisconsin residents.
Legumes and alfalfa, take up nitrogen before it can reach groundwater, but are not as profitable as corn. When prices rise for corn, which requires heavy applications of nitrogen-based fertilizer, farmers quickly convert acreage and boost spreading. Wisconsin farmers applied over 200 million pounds of nitrogen in excess of UW-Extension recommendations.
Not only does the fertilizer create toxic drinking water, but the phosphorus in fertilizer and manure contributes to abnormal algae growth in lakes and streams when it runs off the land with rain and snowmelt.
Drinking water contaminated with more than 10 milligrams per liter of nitrate poses acute risks to infants and women who are pregnant, a possible risk to fetuses in early stages of pregnancy, and a longer-term risk of serious disease in adults.