Corn field

YNT File Photo

YORK -- A proposed change to local resource regulation has the potential to impact the health of everyone in the region — the health of their pocketbooks as well as their bodies.

It’s a complex issue but at the heart of the discussion is this: nitrate levels in the groundwater in much of the Upper Big Blue watershed area are elevated, approaching or exceeding federal guidelines from the Environmental Protection Agency. Consuming this contaminated water increases the risk of a variety of health problems, especially for the very young. New studies also suggest nitrate contamination may increase the risk of certain kinds of cancers.

A key source of this contamination is agricultural fertilizer leaching. Depending on the timing and quantity of application and weather conditions, some amount of the nutrients that are meant to be used by plants will instead make its way to the groundwater supply.

What can be done to mitigate this risk at the source without sacrificing the economic viability of area ag production?

That is the question before the board of the Upper Big Blue Natural Resources District, which manages soil and water resources in all or part of Adams, Butler, Clay, Fillmore, Hamilton, Polk, Saline, Seward and York counties.

NRD staff has been tracking nitrate levels in wells across the district since the 1980s. No one disputes that there is a problem with nitrate contamination in the area. How to address the problem is another story.

Current policies in place since the mid-2000s have sought to reduce the levels of nitrate but have only slowed the rate of increase of contamination in some areas and stabilized it in others.

The board has examined the issue for years and failed to find consensus about the best way to move forward. Currently the burden of remediation falls on municipalities and, in rural areas, on individual landowners. Filtering the water of these contaminants can be costly, so the board is searching for a solution that addresses the root of the problem rather than the symptom, and also serves farmers.

The current proposal for changes to District Rule 5 – Ground Water Management Area Rules and Regulations to address the nitrogen contamination issue will be discussed at an upcoming board meeting and could take effect as early as November 1.

The board is seeking public opinions on the matter. On August 19, they are hosting a public hearing to listen to the input of all citizens in the district. The event will serve as an information open house, where individuals can ask questions and visit one-on-one with NRD directors and employees, as well as representatives from other environmental agencies including the Nebraska Department of Environment and Energy and the University of Nebraska—Lincoln Institute of Agriculture and Natural Resources Extension.

The event will also be a time to give public testimony (either in writing or orally). Comments can also be submitted via the website www.upperbigblue.org/contact.

NRD General Manger David Eigenberg estimates up to 300 people will attend the event, which will be held at 7 p.m. at the Holthus Convention Center in York.

Proposed Changes

The proposed changes hinge on producers adding a nitrification inhibitor—a compound that slows the breakdown of certain kinds of fertilizer into nitrates—if they fertilize before the fields have been planted. Fertilizing “pre-plant” is a common practice that prepares the soil for the growing season but can also lead to greater nitrate contamination, as nutrients are not used right away. The price of fertilizer is generally lower during the fall months and the availability of labor to apply the fertilizer is greater, making it an economically feasible time for producers to add these amendments. However, this means several months pass before the fertilizer is utilized by the next year’s crop, providing opportunity for increased leaching. An added benefit of the use of inhibitors is that farmers would potentially use less fertilizer, as the inhibitor makes the fertilizer more effective.

In areas of highest contamination, the proposed changes will include that no more than 120 pounds per acre of nitrogen fertilizer would be applied pre-plant. Additional fertilizer may still be applied post-plant in a variety of ways without the need for added inhibitors. Nitrogen is then available when the crop is growing, decreasing the opportunity for leaching.

A final proposed change is to the paperwork rather than the plants: producers who apply a nitrogen fertilizer must first report information about their intended usage for the upcoming season and compare it to the University of Nebraska—Lincoln’s nitrogen recommendations for corn.

A complete copy of Rule 5 and the proposed changes are available at the district office and at the district website www.upperbigblue.org/publichearing.

The expectation is that these changes will reduce the amount of nitrate contamination, but don’t look for immediate results, says Marie Krausnick, water department manager at the Upper Big Blue NRD. It has taken decades to get to this level of contamination and the process of reversing those numbers may take just as long. Central Platte NRD, which neighbors the Upper Big Blue NRD to the north and west, has mandated use of inhibitors since 1985 and has seen reduction in nitrates.

However, it’s not apples to apples comparing the two districts, explains Krausnick, as the groundwater depth in the Central Platte watershed is very shallow and contaminants move faster through the system than they would in this district.

While the timeline may vary, Krausnick believes the use of inhibitors could provide some improvement in the Upper Big Blue NRD area.

Opinions from the Board

Many of the 17 board members of the NRD are still wrestling with this issue, seeking balance between the needs of the farmers and the needs of the communities and environment, looking for a solution that benefits everyone. Some argue that the regulation will infringe upon the rights of famers to run their business in the most economically sound way. Others say the proposed changes don’t go far enough to address the contamination problem.

Merlin Volkmer, who has served on the NRD board since 1981, is not in favor of the proposed changes. “All these rules cost the farmer money...It feels like the government taking away our freedoms,” he said.

Volkmer is worried about the impact on the individual ag producers, many of whom are already struggling to make their farms economically viable in a time of challenging weather patterns and market volatility. “We have to think of the farmers first,” he said.

Board member Lynn Yates, who has served since 2009, is keeping an open mind about the issue. “I’m waiting to see what the public says. I haven’t made up my mind,” he says, noting that additional regulation would be an added burden NRD staff and resources.

Gary Eberle has been farming in the district since 1972 and serving on the board since 1997. He thinks the proposed changes will help, but that they don’t go far enough to address the problem. “The biggest thing is to encourage split application,” he said, discussing the merits of applying some fertilizer in the fall and the rest in the spring and summer when it will be quickly used by crops. “The risk of losing nutrients is greatest if you apply in the fall. Our goal is to encourage more to get to the plants.”

Yates agrees with Eberle. “I’m a big believer in split application. Putting the fertilizer on after the plants are growing is going to help some of our problem [with nitrate contamination].”

Despite the variety of opinions on the board and his wish for greater action, Eberle says, “We have to start somewhere. We can look at the results in three or four years and tweak the regulations.”

Total agreement would be nice, but not everyone can have it their way, says Eberle. “If we become so headstrong, we’re going to miss an opportunity to make a difference.”

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