In Ong, a new well, but few people 

By Jessica Fargen Walsh

ONG —  Fewer than 70 people remain in Ong  - an old railroad village in Clay County. Homes lining the streets headed into town are boarded up, and main street is silent. A grain elevator still operates here, but otherwise there is little else going on. 

 

“We are getting smaller every year,” said Dennis Hansen, chairman of the Ong village board. 

“People are moving out and not coming back.” 

 

That’s why Hansen, 74, a retired farmer, laughs when asked how much it will cost the village to drill a new, deeper drinking water well: $160,000. 

 

That’s about $8,000 per hook-up. 

 

“We only have 20 hook ups in town so that’s kind of a ridiculous amount of money to spend on that as far as our thinking is concerned,” he said. 

 

Ong has been under an administrative order to find a clean source of water for its residents since May 2017 when water from its only well showed 12 parts per million of nitrate. The federal standard is 10 parts per million. 

 

The fix? The village will drill a new water well at a depth of 230 feet — 76 feet deeper than the current well. Test well results showed there was cleaner water at a deeper depth. 

Dennis Hansen, chairman of the Ong village board, says it's laughable that a town so small should have to pay $160,000 to fix its drinking water supply. He'd rather pay to install reverse osmosis systems in every household. 

Ong is not alone. Three Nebraska communities are under administrative order because their drinking water exceeds 10 parts per million of nitrate and another 118 must test their drinking water four times a year because nitrate levels are rising to nearly unsafe levels. 

 

To understand why Ong, and other Nebraska communities are having to pay millions of dollars to fix their drinking water problems, one needs to understand how most Nebraskans get drinking water: straight from the ground. 

 

About 88% of Nebraskans get their tap water from the ground, but in larger cities that water may go through a treatment plant before it comes out of the tap. 

 

In many rural communities, water is pumped straight from the ground to homes. Drinking water gets contaminated with nitrate when fertilizer from irrigated corn and soybean fields runs off or seeps into the ground and into the groundwater. Livestock and poultry operations and even lawn care chemicals can also contaminate groundwater with nitrate, but in Nebraska nitrogen fertilizer is the biggest cause.

 

Ong will self-fund the initial phase of the project after considering applying for state or federal loans or grants, said the village’s hired engineer Dana Peterson of Frontwater Engineering in Johnson Lake. He said it will cost $160,000 for a new well.  

 

“It’s so hard,” said Peterson, who has worked with other villages on nitrate water problems. “The economics of it becomes so difficult for a small town like Ong. It’s extreme for these small towns.” 

 

The only way to remove nitrate is to filter it out or build a new well, and both options are pricey. Communities with water treatment plants must also employ a certified water operator. 

The population of Ong is now closer 50 people, says village board chairman Dennis Hansen. Only about 20 people are connected to the town's one drinking water well, which has nitrate levels that exceed federal standards. 

There are a lot of empty storefronts on the main street through Ong, which is home to fewer than 70 people.

Glenvil, a town of 293 people about 30 miles away from Ong, just drilled a new well and built a new pumphouse, at a cost of $350,000. The project is self-funded and water rates will increase.  The town had two wells, but one was taken offline because nitrate levels were 20 parts per million, Peterson said. 

 

Peterson said new wells are not necessarily a permanent solution as nitrate levels continue to rise in some parts of the state, but it might make the most sense for now. 

 

“We want a longterm solution, but when we look at the population of some of these small towns, as time goes on the communities are smaller and smaller and smaller.  We hate to go with a big approach that is somewhat costly, and they have a 40-year loan. In 40 years, these communities may have to quadruple their rates just to stay even. They have just lost that many customers.  We don’t have people moving to these small towns. As folks pass away, that’s kind of it. They are gone. That’s the challenge is looking beyond and looking at the big picture.” 

Water from this spring-fed spigot runs constantly in downtown Steele City, according to Margo D'Angelo, who owns a bar across the street. She says residents fill up water jugs from the spigot every day.

2019 Jessica Fargen Walsh

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