New Plan Holds Promise to Clean Up Long-standing Groundwater Contamination

March 21, 2017, 6:45 a.m. ·

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Decades of intensive farming have contaminated the groundwater across many parts of Nebraska. A new plan may help farmers in the northeastern part of the state address the problem.

Farmers rely on nitrogen fertilizer to maximize their bushels of corn and soybeans. But nitrogen not used by plants—because too much was applied, or the timing was off, or the rain or irrigation washed it away—makes its way into the water supply.

At a nitrogen management class in the small town of Creighton, Nebraska, Tanner Jenkins of the Upper Elkhorn Natural Resources District shows a chart of groundwater data to a group of about 40 farmers. He points to the red line, which symbolizes nitrates over time.

“You can see we’re on a pretty steady upward click,” Jenkins said.

Farms sit shoulder to shoulder across this part of the high plains, where shallow water tables and sandy soil have accelerated the movement of nitrates into the groundwater. Excessive nitrates in drinking water is especially dangerous for newborns and pregnant women. It can hurt the body’s ability to move oxygen in the blood. But this isn’t new information for the producers in the room.

“This issue that we’re having is long-standing,” Jenkins said. “Creighton, Nebraska, as a part of this groundwater impairment, has actually had to install an industrial-size reverse osmosis system to provide potable water for the town.”

More than 7,000 people in this region, known as the Bazile Groundwater Management Area, rely solely on groundwater contaminated by nitrates. Jenkins coordinates a program trying to clean that groundwater up. But Marty Link of the Nebraska Department of Environmental Quality says it’s hard to address pollution that doesn’t come from one specific source.

The Bazile Groundwater Management Area encompasses 756 square miles, covering parts of four NRDs (Upper Elkhorn, Lower Elkhorn, Lewis & Clark and Lower Niobrara) and three counties. High levels of groundwater nitrates have been an increasing problem in this region since the late 1980s.(Map courtesy Bazile Groundwater Management Area)

“Nonpoint source is from wide-spread application of a pollutant, such as widespread application of fertilizer, or manure used as fertilizer. It's coming from all over the place, you can't really put it to an actual address or point,” Link said.

Pollution coming from a specific place, like out of a factory, can be regulated. But here, the 756-square-mile area of concern spreads across four local groundwater districts (NRDs) that each have their own water quality rules. In 2011, the districts decided to work together, along with the state, to address the problem comprehensively. Last fall, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency approved their plan, making it the first in the country to qualify for funding normally reserved for surface water projects.

“Getting a groundwater management plan accepted by EPA is like a chocolate sundae with sprinkles on top. It's wonderful. It really is a great opportunity,” Link said.

There’s already some money available for water quality improvement. But this new plan will provide more money to treat the problem at its source: helping farmers adopt practices that reduce the amount of nitrates getting into the groundwater. Those are things like planting cover crops, deep soil sampling and more efficient irrigation methods. Link says that’s really the only way to clean up the water.

“It's really hard to do any kind of remediation of an aquifer for the nonpoint source. You pretty much have to rely on nature taking its course,” Link said.

Link says this new funding could make a big difference for Nebraska, where 85 percent of the population relies on groundwater. Though it’s possible the funds could be impacted by President Trump’s proposed cuts to the EPA, Link hopes their collaborative work could serve as a model for other farm communities dealing with high groundwater nitrates.

Tanner Jenkins is program coordinator of the Bazile Groundwater Management Area Project. Find more information about the project via his Facebook page. (Photo by Ariana Brocious, NET News)

Steve Keck is an independent agronomist who’s worked with area farmers for the last 35 years. The success of this groundwater cleanup relies on more producers taking advantage of the cost-share programs.

“Some people really embrace these programs and try to utilize the different tools,” Keck said. But because they’re voluntary, participation is mixed, he said.

“There's some people that don't want to have the government involved in their business whatsoever. So it’s individual,” Keck said.

Jim Fuchtman is one of the producers who’s taken advantage of existing funding. He says the region’s longstanding nitrate problem is the result of practices from farmers in decades past rather than today’s producers. On his 100-year old farm near Creighton, he uses cover crops and tests the amount of nitrogen and moisture in his soil before he applies fertilizer.

“Cost share makes it appealing. Somebody’s sharing in the cost with us. They’re helping us to look at it. They’re helping us to find new ways to better,” Fuchtman said.

His family relies on a home reverse osmosis system for their drinking water because some of his wells have nitrate levels two to three times the safe drinking standard. But he says he’s not that concerned. And margins are tight, so he and other producers don’t want to waste expensive fertilizer.

“It's contaminated water as some would view it, but that nitrogen is good for crops and I'm able to pull that out of there and utilize some of it so it saves me on some of my fertilizer costs,” Fuchtman said.

If they can convince enough farmers to make changes, the groundwater districts hope to stop nitrate levels from increasing within five years. They expect it will take up to 20 years to bring them back down to the safe drinking range.

In 2016, NET and Harvest Public Media co-reported a series of stories on water quality challenges related to agriculture on the Plains and Midwest. Watch the TV documentary below, and follow this link to see the whole series.