By Jessica Fargen Walsh
Nebraska’s multibillion-dollar farm economy depends on groundwater and thankfully, the state has plenty of it for now. But that farming success has come at a cost: The fertilizer used to make those crops grow over the years has contaminated Nebraska’s groundwater, the drinking water source for most of the state.
It’s a problem that is quietly costing the state and federal government millions of dollars and changing the way rural residents get water and how much they pay. Health researchers believe nitrate contamination in drinking water could be one cause of Nebraska’s higher than average pediatric cancer rate. Nebraska has the seventh-highest pediatric cancer rate in the country and the highest in the Midwest.
This series of stories explores the history of this decades-old problem, how it is impacting Nebraskans and what’s being done about it — from a corn and soybean field in McLean to a daycare in Edgar to a water treatment plant in Creighton.
“I think one way to describe this is it’s a very slow train wreck,” said Dan Snow, a professor and director of laboratory services at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln Water Sciences Laboratory. “People are finally aware that there is a train coming, and now we need to figure out what to do about it.”
For decades, Nebraska farmers over-applied nitrogen fertilizer, which seeped into the soil, drained into surface water and leached into the groundwater, the source of drinking water for about 85% of the state. Nebraska sits atop the plentiful Ogallala Aquifer, a fluid body of water with a water table that is hundreds of feet deep in some parts of the state and bubbling up into streams in another.
Much of the attention on Nebraska water has been the sustainability of the Ogallala Aquifer, but more and more Nebraskans are now worrying not only about quantity, but quality.
Cindy Ostry found out last year that her tap water on her farm in Nickerson near Fremont is contaminated with nitrate levels higher than the federal limit.
Nitrates are in our drinking water and not everyone knows about it
Since 2002, the percentage of groundwater samples that exceeded 10 parts per million of nitrate increased from 27% to 33%, according to this 2016 report. Nitrate contamination in the groundwater impacts nearly 33,000 Nebraskans, far more than arsenic or uranium.
The Environmental Protection Agency says that drinking water that exceeds 10 parts per million of nitrate is not safe to drink. In Nebraska, if a community’s public drinking water supply exceeds that, the community must find a way to fix it.
Of the nearly 550 groundwater-based community public water supply systems in the state that supply their own water, 99 of those — mostly small villages and towns — are required to test their drinking water wells for nitrate four times a year, according to a 2019 Department of Environment and Energy report.
Three Nebraska communities are under a state order to fix high nitrate levels in their public water supplies.
But that’s just public wells. There are no requirements that homeowners — or anyone — test private well water.
Cindy Ostry, a part-time church bookkeeper, tested the tap water at her farm near Fremont as part of a University of Nebraska research study last fall. It was 20 parts per million of nitrate. A follow-up sample was 16 parts per million.
Ostry, her husband and their two daughters moved to the 25-acre farm in Nickerson 20 years ago from Fremont for a cleaner, quieter life. Now, she’s not sure what to think.
“We need to do something. It’s really sad,” she said. “You have this idea that when you move out to the country things are cleaner and no pollution and the air is cleaner and the water is cleaner, but that’s not true.
“The more stuff — junk as I would call it — that’s put on these fields, it’s impacted people in many, many ways.”
Nitrates are costing small towns lots of money
Edgar, population about 400, is building a water line to Fairfield, about 12 miles away, at a cost of $2.98 million, which it is paying for with a USDA loan and grant and water rates that are up to $10 higher. The city has been on administrative order for 15 years.
Steele City with a population of 58 is using more than $900,000 in grants and loans to build a water line to Endicott. Construction will start soon.
Trumbull, population 196, spent $478,000 to build a pipeline to connect to the Hastings water supply in 2006. The village will be paying off the loan — about $23,000 a year — until 2046.
Prosser used a USDA $77,000 grant in 2015 to install reverse osmosis systems in all 42 households that use the community system, but the village’s water operator must collect water samples four times a year, and the village is responsible for maintenance.
The city of Osmond, with about 800 people, spent $1.2 million on two new wells using state funds.
Glenvil, with about 300 people, just built a $350,000 well, which will result in a $10 a month increase in water bills.
Nitrate contamination costing millions
Nitrate contamination has also impacted small-town budgets.
The nitrate problem disproportionately affects rural Nebraskans because they are closest to agriculture and their communities are least equipped to pay for water treatment. In Nebraska, there are 66 cities and towns and 384 villages.
Hastings has spent $15 million to build a treatment plant to filter nitrate out drinking water, but small communities don’t have the capacity to fund expensive water treatment plants. Many turn to the government for help.
Over the last nine years, the USDA rural development program in Nebraska has loaned communities money for 16 projects including $10.4 million in loans and $11.2 million in grants for nitrate treatments including water lines and treatment plants. The state, through the Department of Environment and Energy, has distributed at least another $20 million more in federal funds through a program called the drinking water state revolving fund.
Anywhere from 350 to 400 of the state’s roughly 600 community drinking water systems rely on groundwater pumped directly into homes without any treatment for nitrate, estimates Randy Hellbusch, circuit rider for the Nebraska Rural Water Association.
“Very few small towns do any treatment whatsoever,” said Hellbusch, whose member organization is a liaison between community water systems and federal programs. “It’s just pumped in. It basically comes straight from the ground.”
There are safeguards for E Coli and bacteria, but not for nitrates, he said.
Nitrate contamination closes lakes
Nitrate contamination is also closing swimming holes. Over the last nine years, the presence of microcystin in lakes and reservoirs has resulted in no-swimming warnings 187 times at 22 lakes and reservoirs. Each closure is at least two weeks.
When excessive nitrogen ends up in a lake, it causes algae blooms, which produce the toxin microcystin. Starting in May 2020, the state will adopt the new federal standard of 8 parts per billion, down from the current 20 parts per billion, likely resulting in even more closures.
In 2020, closures will last one week, instead of two.
Who’s in charge?
In Nebraska, Natural Resources Districts across the state are charged with protecting water, air and soil and when they suggest regulations, it’s not always popular.
“Generationally, we have been spoiled,” said Mike Sousek, the manager of the Lower Elkhorn NRD in Norfolk. “Here, through the generations, we had all the water in the world, and it was good quality, and we never made the effort to do some of these conservation things that are good for the system and good for the sustainability of it. And now we are at a point where we’ve neglected it long enough that we are getting maybe to a critical state.”
At the state level, the Nebraska Department of Environment and Energy and the Department of Health and Human Services have oversight over drinking water, distributing federal money and working with communities with nitrate levels that are trending upward.
The state Department of Environment and Energy issued 32 nitrate violation notices to 18 community water systems in 2018, according to this report. Overall, notices for nitrate violations are down significantly since 2009, but there’s still room for more education.
Sue Dempsey, the administrator of the drinking water division at the Department of Health and Human Services, said nitrate contamination in the drinking water is one of her top priorities. In 2020, she had planned to visit communities in Nebraska as part of a drinking water education and awareness campaign.
“I want to bring drinking water out from behind the shadows where people are only aware of drinking water when there’s a problem,” Dempsey said. “I want them to see all the things that are being done in the background to ensure they have safe water.”
HOW DOES THE STATE MONITOR DRINKING WATER FOR NITRATES?
The state considers a public water system one that has 25 or more people or more than 15 service connections. By regulation, operators of public drinking water systems must test the water once a year for nitrates.
If test results show nitrate levels above 5 parts per million, that community is required to test its drinking water once per quarter each year. After at least a year, if the water tests consistently below 8 parts per million, the community can petition to go back to annual monitoring.
If a community’s nitrate levels go above 8 parts per million, it is put on permanent quarterly monitoring. If one of the community’s quarterly tests goes above 10.5 parts per million, the community receives a confirmation sample. If the average of the original sample and the confirmation is above 10.5 parts per million then the system will receive a violation notice
Two violation notices in three quarters results in an administrative order. There are four Nebraska water systems on administrative order.
What’s being done?
It’s not all bad news. Nebraska researchers and community groups are working to highlight this issue and come up with solutions. About 50 faculty members at Nebraska universities and colleges have formed a group to foster better communication and more interdisciplinary research.
In 2019, the Legislature created a healthy soil task force that will spend the next year strategizing on how to get more farmers to adopt regenerative soil practices such as cover crops. Chairman Keith Burns, a farmer and owner of a cover crop seed company in Bladen, estimates fewer than 5% of Nebraska farmers use cover crops. Cover crops such as rye can be planted in the off-season to soak up excess nitrogen so it doesn’t leach.
“It’s just a fraction of what should be done,” he said.
While organic farms still make up a tiny fraction of farms in Nebraska, more farmers are converting portions of their farms to grow certified organic crops. The number of Nebraska farms with organic operations increased from 159 to 277 between 2012 and 2017, a 74% increase, according to USDA agriculture census data released in April. Organic farmers cannot use synthetic fertilizers on their crops to retain the organic designation.
Jodi Sangster, a researcher from the UNL College of Engineering, holds a groundwater sample from a farm in Nickerson where contaminated well water is the home's drinking water supply.
Jody Sangster is working with community partners and volunteers as part of a citizen scientist project to test private drinking water wells, which are not regulated but are a source of water for many rural residents. In 2019, 335 citizen scientists from 45 counties collected 338 surface water and 327 well water samples. To date, 20.5% of the wells sampled had nitrate levels at or above the EPA's safe drinking water standard of 10 parts per million. Cindy Ostry, the homeowner whose well registered nitrates of 16.3 parts per million, tested her well water through this study.
Graham Christensen, owner of GC Resolve, an environmental consulting group who is involved in the citizen scientist project, said more people need to know about the safety of their well water. Christensen, who still farms on his family farm, said the potential dangers in private wells has been ignored.
"People deserve to know these things especially if it can create a health issue," he said. "It's just a very simple mindset and people should know, and most likely they don’t know. If we are ever going to deal with that, people to have an understanding of what is happening in their wells."
UNL professor Paul Black stands in his lab on Innovation Campus in front of glass tubes filled with algae cells that are filtering nitrate-laden water. He hopes the process can someday be used in water treatment plants.
UNL professor Paul Black has big plans to use algae grown in a lab — for now — to treat nitrate-laden water in drinking water treatment plants, hopefully at a huge cost-savings compared to traditional reverse osmosis systems, which can cost millions. A pilot project is planned for Hickman, the state’s fastest growing city, which recently dug a new well and built a treatment plant.
In the meantime, however, this problem has left dozens of rural Nebraska communities in a scramble to stay ahead of the problem.
In Plainview, a town of about 1,200 people in northeast Nebraska, two of the city’s four wells have been shut down because of high nitrate levels, leaving the city with two working wells and a water tower. An engineer is looking at a location for a test well, said city administrator Michael Holton during an interview last year. Holton is no longer Plainview city administrator. The nitrate level in one of the two working wells is 9.7 parts per million, he said.
“For the most part, Plainview is not in the crisis mode, but is in the preventative and watch mode,” Holton said. “It’s little doubt to me that unless the nitrates show a turn the other way, that we are not done, that we are going to see creeping up to the point where the four wells are all of them are going to be affected.”
Making sure residents have clean water is a top priority, he said.
“The quality of your air, the quality of your land and the quality of your water should rank and do rank high especially if you are in a rural area,” Holton said, “which is a high identify factor of why people live there.”