Small towns, big bills
By Jessica Fargen Walsh
Residents in cities as big as Hastings and as small as Glenvil have one thing in common these days: higher water bills.
That’s because more and more Nebraska communities, some with as few as 20 water hook ups, are spending collectively millions of dollars to build water pipelines to other communities, drill new wells or build treatment plants because nitrate contamination has made their water unsafe to drink.
Since 2000, Nebraska communities have received millions of dollars in combined federal and state loans and grants to build new wells, construct miles-long water pipelines, build treatment plants and in a few towns install water filtration systems in every home.
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 because of concern over current or past nitrate levels, according to data provided by the state Department of Environment and Energy and this report.
Since 2003, more than 50 communities have started or finished drinking water improvement projects because of nitrates, said Steve McNulty, an environmental engineer who coordinates the state’s drinking water state revolving fund, which loans and grants money to communities for water infrastructure projects.
The state is charged with providing all residents clean drinking water and with complying with the federal Safe Drinking Water Act.
Source: Nebraska Department of Environment and Energy, 2019
The biggest source of nitrate contamination in the groundwater is from fertilizer on irrigated corn and soybean fields. And, despite reduced irrigation and fertilizer use and better soil management techniques like crop rotation, nitrate levels in and around many rural communities keep rising.
It's a costly problem.
Edgar, with loans and grants, is spending nearly $3 million on a pipeline to Fairfield, about 12 miles away. Water bills there will likely go up $10 to $12 a month.
Dorothy Cassell, who is in her 80s, drinks a glass of water in her kitchen in Steele City, which is building a pipeline to another town because nitrate levels in the village's drinking water exceed the federal limit for what's considered safe.
Steele City, with a population of 58 has been under a state order to find a clean water source since 2007. It is using $900,000 in loans and grants to build a waterline to Endicott. Steele City’s only drinking water well measures 13 parts per million of nitrate.
Dorothy Cassell, who is 86, has lived in Steele City for 19 years. She drinks water straight from the tap, even though she knows the nitrate levels are high.
“I guess I haven’t concentrated on what it means if I don’t do anything about it,” she said.
Attitudes in Steele City range from indifference to anger to relief.
"It’s just another way for the state, I think, to be too damn bossy,” said the village’s part-time postmaster Bill Scheele, 75.
He doesn’t understand why the village needs to spend so much money on its water problems and worries whether older residents can afford higher water bills. He estimates water rates will increase from about $24 a month to $36 a month.
Tammy Katz, a retired nurse and the village’s board chairwoman, has accepted that things have changed and residents need to do the same, she said. For example, every home and business now has a water meter.
“We’ve had really cheap water for a long time,” she said. “The water system was never run like a business. It was just run the old way. They charged enough to keep things going.”
Katz said while she drinks water from her tap in Steele City, she’s glad a fix is coming.
“I don’t like it, that it’s in there,” she said. “We shouldn’t have it in there. And the government says we can’t have it in there.”
A stack of water quality reports in the Edgar city offices. Edgar is one of four Nebraska communities under an administrative order to fix its contaminated drinking water.
THE LAW PASSED TO PROTECT DRINKING WATER
Congress passed the federal Safe Drinking Water Act in 1974 to monitor and regulate the country’s drinking water supply. It was amended in 1996 to include protections for source water including lakes, rivers and streams. States are charged with oversight of the law, including annual testing of public water systems. The Safe Drinking Water Act does not apply to private wells, which are the source of drinking water for about 20% of Nebraskans, according to the state.
Most communities raise water rates to help pay for water fixes, but that doesn’t cover all the cost. Some communities balk at a state and federal requirement to install water meters in order to get state or federal loans and grants so they self-fund water quality projects. Glenvil, with about 300 people, just built a $350,000 well and rates are expected to rise $10 a month. In Ong, the village is funding a new, $150,000 well because the only drinking water well in the village has nitrate levels that are deemed unsafe.
Still, the majority of communities rely on low-interest government loans or grants.
Since 2010, the USDA’s rural development program has provided $21 million in grants or low-interest loans to 16 communities. In addition, the state Department of Environment and Energy has loaned or provided grants for at least another $20 million through the drinking water state revolving fund.
McNulty, the environmental engineer who coordinates the state’s drinking water state revolving fund, said the revolving fund is adequately funded to cover community requests for funds to fix nitrate problems. In fact, the bigger need now in Nebraska, he said, is fixing aging pipes and infrastructure. The state will have $13 million this year for drinking water improvement projects through the state revolving fund, which includes $11 million in federal funds and a $2 million state match.
The state requires McCool Junction, a town of 400, to test its two water wells quarterly because nitrate levels are nearing 10 parts per million.
“We are kind of on the bubble,” said Jim Green, the utilities and maintenance superintendent in McCool Junction.
McCOOL JUNCTION: NITRATE SAMPLE RESULTS 1998 AND 2019
Nitrate levels have risen dramatically in McCool Junction in the last 21 years. In 1998, well 831 measured 3.3 parts per million of nitrate. This summer, it measured 9.05 parts per million.
The town has applied for an $840,000 state grant in anticipation that the state will require it to find a clean water source for its 200 water customers. The grant would partially pay for a new well and new pump house.
In tiny Trumbull, village residents will be paying off a $478,000 loan until the year 2046 — about $23,957 a year. The village of 205 people had to borrow money in 2006 to build a pipeline to connect to the Hastings water supply because of high nitrate levels in its water.
Thirteen years later, village clerk Dorothy Thiel gets angry when she writes out the loan payment check each year.
“That’s my frustration is they built it too big for our town, thinking wild and crazy ideas that we were going to be able to grow to pay for this,” she said. “And here we are. That’s a lot of money every year.
There are costs beyond the pipeline — there’s the water operator and maintenance worker. Plus, water bills went up, she said.
Paul Jensen, Trumbull's water operator, and Dorothy Thiel, the village clerk, discuss the village's struggle to attract people to the village and the high cost of getting clean water.
The village of Prosser got a low-interest loan for $106,000 to dig a new well because of high nitrate levels, but nitrate levels in that well — the only source of water for the village — crept up to 16 parts per million so they dug the well deeper using a $7,300 grant, said Michelle Matthews, the village chairwoman.
Instead of drilling a new well or connecting to another water source, the village used a $84,000 grant to install reverse osmosis systems for all 39 water customers. Four times a year, water operator Michael Matthews tests water from each of the 39 systems and sends results to the state. Eventually, the village will be responsible for replacing the systems.
“We are responsible for every RO system. The village owns it, not the customer. We are responsible for maintaining it, changing the filters and everything,” said Michelle Matthews, who is Michael Matthews’ wife. “And all that cost has to be absorbed in their water bill.”
Edgar, which is building the $3 million water pipeline to Fairfield, is required to provide bottled water to residents, particularly pregnant women and families with young children. Nitrate contamination can cause blue baby syndrome, which affects oxygen transportation in the blood.
Megan Schaefer, 34, said she doesn't worry too much about nitrates in her drinking water.
Schaefer, who was pregnant during an interview in September, runs a day care and fills bottles from her sink, which has a reverse osmosis system installed. Or, she gets bottled water from the town.
“It’s just inconvenient because you have to go somewhere to get water,” she said on a September morning at her day care where 12 children and two day care workers were giving the kids lunch.
Megan Schaefer, who was pregnant, fills a bottle from a reverse osmosis system at her home daycare in Edgar. High nitrates in the drinking water in Edgar pose a threat to pregnant women and children.
The city of Aurora, with about 4,500 people, has six working wells. It built a new drinking well in 2016 at a cost of $415,000 and another in 2019 at a cost of $684,000, both funded through the state’s drinking water revolving fund. They were built for quality and quantity and constructed in an area with low nitrate levels in the groundwater, said Adam Darbro, the city’s utilities superintendent and zoning administrator.
Darbro said it was still more cost-effective to dig new wells than build a treatment plant.
“We still pump straight from the ground to tap,” Darbro said.
Because it wants to protect its water supply, the city has a well-head protection plan, which is aimed at protecting areas near drinking water wells, among other things.
In August 2017, the state issued the city an acute nitrate violation because a drinking water well reached more than 10 parts per million of nitrate. The state requires public drinking water systems to notify residents within 24 hours when this happens.
“We had to hand deliver notifications to everybody in town,” Darbro said. “We took our whole public works staff, and we marked off a part of town. We walked.”
Larger cities are not immune to this problem.
In the city of Hastings, with 25,000 people, an expensive reverse osmosis system is designed to remove nitrate out of the groundwater and can process 706 gallons a minute from two extraction wells. This “clean” water is then placed back into the aquifer to be captured by the municipal wells thus lowering the nitrate levels so the water is safe to drink, said Marty Stange, environmental supervisor at the Hastings utilities department.
At the end of the process, the nitrate-laden water is pumped into a lagoon the size of 660 Olympic swimming pools before it is sent to a center pivot at a nearby farm, where it’s used to irrigate crops.
The city has spent $15 million of the $46 million it is authorized to spend to rid nitrate from drinking water, Stange said. Water rates went up every year for the last seven years, but are not going up this year.
Hastings has a solution, but Stange wonders how smaller communities will handle their nitrate problems. He believes Nebraska is moving toward a rural regional water supply system.
“It’s just been slowly moving out this way,” he said. “We see that that’s the move that will have to take place, but the distance between communities is, it’s just a problem. How do you deal with that?”
More than 60% of Nebraska’s community water systems serve fewer than below 500 people, according to the state’s annual public water system supply program report.
Randy Hellbusch, circuit rider for the Nebraska Rural Water Association, agrees. Rural communities will get hit the hardest because of economy of scale, he said.
“We have a lot of communities that are consolidating and have to purchase their water and run a pipeline due to the simple fact that they can’t find water in their area that isn’t high in nitrates,” he said.
Water from this spring-fed spigot runs constantly in downtown Steele City. Margo D'Angelo owns a bar across the street and says residents fill up water jugs from the spigot every day.
WATCHING THE WATER
Nearly 120 community water supply systems including towns, cities, villages, mobile home parks, a school and a prison are required to test their drinking water quarterly. A water system may fall under quarterly monitoring, for example, if drinking well samples are above 5 parts for nitrate or water with elevated nitrate levels is being treated. The blue dots represent systems that test water quarterly and list the most recent and highest nitrate results for each system.