Citizens must remain vigilant about water quality amid growth in industrial agriculture, but area water utilities appear equipped to handle contamination that might result from a proposed Fremont-area chicken operation.

“Don’t fall asleep at the switch,” said Alan Kolok, director of the Center for Environmental Health and Toxicology at the University of Nebraska Medical Center.

“We have an extremely precious resource that — it is at least possible — could be damaged by this industrial operation,” he said.

Retail giant Costco looks to build a slaughterhouse in Fremont and develop a regional poultry farming network to supply chicken to its warehouse stores. Opponents have raised alarms about the possible toll on the area’s water quality, among other concerns.

The project would expand Nebraska’s broiler chicken population by about twentyfold, as Costco would contract with farmers to raise some 17 million chickens at a time.

Opponents point to areas of the southeastern United States — the country’s “broiler belt” — where runoff from chicken manure spread on farm fields has contaminated waterways with an excess of nitrogen and phosphorus, killing marine life and threatening businesses.

Opponents also say the project could put Omaha in a situation like Des Moines, where the city’s water utility is suing three northwest Iowa counties over high levels of nitrates coming from chemical farm fertilizers and livestock manure.

Just because urban water treatment systems can handle water contaminated with excess nutrients today, at significant expense, doesn’t mean new challenges won’t arise, said Bill Stowe, chief executive officer of Des Moines Water Works.

Stowe said the Metropolitan Utilities District and the City of Fremont appear to be prepared but added, “the environmental consequences will be real and significant.”

“I will tell you, you better be watching Nebraska’s waters,” he told the audience of about 100, gathered on the University of Nebraska at Omaha campus for the two-hour talk moderated by the Nebraska League of Women Voters. “There needs to be a principled look at balancing economic growth with environmental issues, because the water is precious. Turning the cycle backward — regulating businesses that are already in existence — is very difficult in this political climate.”

A similar talk is planned for tonight at 7 in Lincoln at the Unitarian Church, 6300 A St.

The controversial chicken project was approved this summer by Fremont city officials and is currently in the permitting process. Supporters tout the economic development benefits including extra income potential for area farmers.

Project supporters say water quality will not suffer. Fremont City Administrator Brian Newton said Fremont and Omaha draw water primarily from ground sources, which he said are less susceptible to runoff than surface water sources like the rivers Des Moines depends on.

But Stowe and others on the panel said both sources are part of a larger, intertwined water system.

“Water is not renewable,” Stowe said. “Agriculture is impacting the quality of water we have, whether it’s groundwater or surface water. And we need to be talking about sustainable agriculture.”

Omaha’s MUD has said current levels of fertilizer-related pollutants in drinking water are well under allowable limits and are not expected to rise as a result of the project. MUD executives said farmers would offset a portion of their current application of chemical fertilizer with the manure.

And Costco project manager Lincoln Premium Poultry has said it will abide by state environmental laws when it comes to building and operating the slaughterhouse. And it will go beyond state law, it said, to require all its contract chicken farmers to follow a “nutrient management plan.” The plans govern when and where farmers dispose of manure in an effort to curb runoff.

But while the sky may not be falling today, Kolok said, he encouraged the audience to learn about water pollution and become politically active. A proposal before the Legislature’s Natural Resources Committee would provide for an interim study of nitrate pollution in Nebraska’s waters, and speakers encouraged the audience to contact their representatives about it.

Kolok said he will be testing area water sources this summer to create baseline data and encouraged citizens to join him.

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