Law passed last year to reduce nitrates in Nebraska water ‘hasn’t left the ground,’ sponsor says

LINCOLN — A new state program, approved in 2022 to help reduce nitrate pollution in drinking water, is struggling to get started, more than a year after it became law.

Legislative Bill 925, the Resilient Soils and Water Quality Act, provided $1.25 million over five years to hire a non-government “facilitator” to organize small-group, educational meetings with farmers to promote conservation practices that reduce nitrate pollution in groundwater and surface water.

Sen. Tim Gragert
Sen. Tim Gragert shown in 2022 (Rebecca S. Gratz for the Nebraska Examiner)

But so far, no facilitator has been hired, and education sessions are still being mulled. A website is in the works, however, and a five-page annual report was produced in December while an employee with the Nebraska Department of Natural Resources is sorting out the best way to use the funding.

Former State Sen. Tim Gragert, who led passage of LB 925, said Friday that overall the program “hasn’t left the ground” while nitrate problems in Nebraska’s water resources persist.

 “It’s kind of disappointing,” Gragert said.

“Nitrates in our water are just terrible in some parts of Nebraska and it’s not getting any better,” said the senator, who left the Legislature last year after deciding not to run for re-election.

Gragert said that his hometown of Creighton had to install a reverse-osmosis system in 1990 to lower nitrate levels to healthy levels in groundwater there.

‘Blue baby syndrome’

A 2020 report from the University of Nebraska said that Creighton and four other nearby rural towns had spent nearly $9 million — at a cost of $2,200 per person — to supply clean drinking water.

The state’s 2022 annual report on groundwater quality found that nearly 30% (157 out of 550) of the state’s public water systems had to regularly test for nitrate levels to discern if they exceeded the level deemed unsafe for drinking — 10 parts per billion.

Nitrates can cause “blue baby syndrome” where a baby’s skin color changes and they can become irritable or lethargic. Nitrates have also been linked to birth defects and some cancers.

Gragert, who worked for the federal soil conservation service for three decades, said that because growing corn — which requires nitrogen fertilizer — is such a huge business in Nebraska, policy makers are willing to “turn their heads” to the problem.

“There’s a real lack of education, even though we have some really sharp producers out there,” the senator said.

Tom Riley, the director of the Nebraska Department of Natural Resources, was out of the office on Friday and unavailable for comment.

But Kent Zimmerman, a supervisor at DNR who is dealing with the healthy soils law, said, “I wouldn’t say nothing is happening.”

He said the job of implementing the resilient soils/water quality law was handed “at the last minute” to DNR, which regulates surface water.

‘Don’t upset the apple cart attitude’

Zimmerman said that other groups have tried “learning events” like those envisioned by LB 925, but they’ve had mixed results and seem to draw the same people. So, he’s now trying to discern if there’s a better way to move forward and utilize the $250,000 a year funding.

“While soil health seems like a great thing, what I’ve discovered is there’s a ‘don’t upset the apple cart attitude’ out there,” Zimmerman said.

 “I don’t think they thought this one through,” he added.

Gragert and others involved in a task force that studied the issue for more than a year before LB 925 was passed disagree. The task force consisted of authorities on nitrates and farming practices.

The senator said the bill was intentionally drafted to require a non-government facilitator to lead the effect because many farmers don’t trust government officials visiting their land.

The idea, Gragert said, was to use other farmers as mentors to promote a voluntary, grass-roots effort toward a “healthy soils” practices — like cover crops and better fertilizer management — that can reduce nitrate problems.

That approach, he said, is the best way to break through the reluctance of some farmers to consider practices that don’t contribute to more nitrate in surface and groundwater.

Gragert said it’s not true that nitrogen fertilizer is being taken away from farmers, it’s about using it more efficiently.

DNR thought to be more cooperative

The facilitator, he added, was also supposed to seek grant funding, so that the water quality work could continue after state funding was scheduled to run out, in five years.

The DNR was chosen to help facilitate the program, Gragert said, because it was viewed as being more cooperative than another option, the Nebraska Department of Agriculture.

Zimmerman, the DNR official, said that the agency is in the final stages of hiring a company that put together a website on best farming practices to avoid nitrates in water in South Dakota.

“Rather than have one person doing everything, I think we’re looking for a group approach,” he said.

If they hire a facilitator who is not a government employee, that would probably be a couple of years off, Zimmerman said.

“Oh man,” was Gragert’s response.

Right now, he said, there’s a lot of momentum nationally and within corporations to address nitrate problems, and getting LB 925 off and running shouldn’t wait.

Still, Gragert acknowledged, it’s a complicated problem involving farming practices, confined animal feeding operations and lawn fertilizer that will take a comprehensive approach.

“This is problem that was created over many many years, and a solution isn’t going to be immediate either,” he said.

National entity promotes ‘Nitrate Watch’

A national organization best known for promoting outdoor recreation has called for citizens to help monitor rising nitrate levels in America’s streams and drinking water.

The Izaak Walton League of America, during its annual meeting in Lincoln last week, urged citizens to join its “Nitrate Watch” program launched in February. It provides test kits to take water samples, and calls on people to advocate for programs that promote clean water and healthy soils. It is patterned after another League effort to avoid pollution in streams from deposits of salt to clear roads of ice.

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