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Calls to help Nebraska’s rural residents often focus on property tax relief, but there’s another burden that also deserves attention: safeguarding the quality of water supplies.

Fertilizer runoff boosts the nitrate levels in many Nebraska water supplies, raising public health concerns and in many cases triggering mandatory well and pipeline replacement. Jessica Fargen Walsh, an assistant professor in the College of Journalism and Mass Communications at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, examined the issue in recent reporting in The World-Herald.

At present, 99 of Nebraska’s nearly 550 groundwater-based community public water supply systems are required to test their drinking water wells for nitrates four times a year, Walsh found. Those systems serve nearly 33,000 Nebraskans, most in small, rural towns. In all, about 88% of Nebraskans rely on groundwater for their drinking water.

The state provides significant help through its revolving water fund, which lends and grants money to communities for infrastructure projects. But the state must do more.

At present, private wells are unregulated. The state must develop a statewide strategy for testing of private wells, to maximize protection for rural residents.

In addition, Nebraska must boost its outreach to agricultural producers on sound conservation practices. It also must build on current work by natural resources districts to reduce long-term nitrate levels in the state’s regional water systems.

The more that Nebraska can head off costly water infrastructure replacement due to nitrate concerns, the better for rural residents. An example cited by Walsh is Edgar, a community of about 400 southeast of Hastings. Edgar is building a water line to Fairfield, about 12 miles away, at a cost of $2.98 million. Federal grant and loan money is covering the costs, but residents face higher water bills: a $10 monthly increase, for a total rate of $12.

“If you are a community of 500, this is just devastatingly expensive,” said Bruce Dvorak, an environmental infrastructure engineer and extension specialist at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. “You’ve got small communities who have these problems. They are shrinking in size. They have a lot of retirees. The household income is decreasing. Those are the ones that really worry me. That’s a problem that is becoming more challenging. They are least capable of addressing it.”

Since 2003, nitrate concerns have required more than 50 Nebraska communities to start or finish drinking water improvement projects such as new wells or pipelines due to nitrates, Walsh reports.

Legislation by State Sen. Tim Gragert of Creighton, approved last year, has created a task force to develop a statewide strategy to strengthen outreach to ag producers about the water quality issue. “There’s a lot of farmers and ranchers that haven’t heard this,” Gragert told the Legislature’s Agriculture Committee last year. “A lot of producers do not have a clue about what is going on with conservation practices for soil health.” Current outreach on the issue is fragmented and uncoordinated. Gragert is an expert in this regard, having worked for 31 years with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Resources Conservation Service.

Nebraska NRDs and University of Nebraska specialists, meanwhile, are working with producers to address water quality concerns, using groundwater management plans that vary depending on the local nitrate level. Conservation steps include adjusted application levels or schedules, avoidance of overwatering, use of cover crops, decommissioning of old wells, proper maintenance of septic systems and wetland restoration.

The Little Blue NRD in southeast Nebraska has designated eight “water quality management areas” to address nitrate concerns. In northeast Nebraska, four NRDs — the Lower Niobrara, Upper Elkhorn, Lower Elkhorn and Lewis and Clark — have adopted a regional water management plan for water quality.

Such approaches have brought success in some areas. A major collaborative effort restored the Shell Creek watershed in the Lower Platte North NRD. The Central Platte NRD reduced fertilizer levels to needed levels while maintaining strong crop yields.

Nebraska must build on such successes through further outreach plus a statewide strategy to test private wells. Ensuring drinking water quality requires no less.

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