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Cities, farmers focus on reducing nitrates in water after decades of use

Hastings fights nitrogen in water supply with unique project. (NTV News)

Water is the lifeblood of Nebraska for irrigation, wildlife and residents, but a threat decades in the making continues to rise.

The city of Hastings thinks it has found a solution.

The aquifer storage and restoration project is officially in the first phase.

In short, the ASR project takes water from wells, tests their levels, cleans what may be over nitrated, and pushes that cleaned water back downstream to the aquifer.

"Like I always say, I have no problem drinking the water in town," said Marty Stange, environment supervisor for Hastings Utilities.

Stange checks the pipes on a well that shut down because of its high nitrate levels - it was converted into a testing station for water in Hastings.

"To say that these parts and pieces haven't been tried, water treatment's a common thing, injecting water back into the aquifer is - we're just taking different parts and making a different kind of cookie, I mean that's really what it is. But we're trying to optimize those pieces and say well this is what works for Hastings," Stange said.

The project is made possible by money from ratepayers, the Natural Resources District, environmental trusts and a grant from the Natural Resources Commission, with financing from Hastings Utilities as well.

The project equals nearly $46 million, but city leaders say it is actually saving Hastings almost $30 million compared to typical water treatment.

Stange said the city of Hastings uses almost 3 billion gallons of water a year, but they won't start filtering all of that.

"What we're planning on doing here is just a little over half of that because we still have some clean water in the aquifer so we'll just grow into it as we need it. So really in this particular project it allows you to do that, more than just billing one big treatment plant and trying to treat all the water. That's one advantage this system has is you can kind of phase it in as you go," Stange said.

Though this isn't an immediate solution, Stange says it's a project we may be able to use long-term.

"If we have 50 years worth of nitrogen between our surface and our groundwater you know, it took us that long to get there, it's gonna take us that long to get it cleaned back up," Stange said.

Nitrogen fertilizer revolutionized farming, but it leaves a lasting legacy in the very water we depend on.

The issue has been monitored, and now people are taking more action.

Farmers used nitrogen on their crops and thought the more the merrier. Now, cities battle toxic levels reaching five times the allowed amount of nitrates in our water supply.

Stange said nitrate levels above 10 are a no-go.

"Ever since nitrates became a tool for the farmer to increase production, we've seen that coming our way and certainly there's a lot of soil between the surface and the aquifer and that's going to continue to migrate into the aquifer as we go," Stange said.

For farmers, it's become not only a water quality issue, but it's also impacting time and money, too.

"You know, nitrogen is expensive so if we're putting too much on, we're wasting money plus it's getting out of the root zone, you know that's a lose-lose situation," said Randy Uhrmacher, a farmer. "So for the most part, farmers really pay attention to it, you know, just for a cost standpoint."

Uhrmacher is also chairman for the Little Blue Natural Resources District, which deals with protecting and conserving resources in towns across Nebraska.

Ggeneral manager Mike Onnen says many of those communities are affected by rising nitrate levels.

"We do require the land owners to do soil sampling, to find out what the residual nitrate is in their soil then plan for the next crop and set a reasonable yield goal and adjust their crop nitrogen requirements accordingly," Onnen said.

Onnen says regulations include mandatory training events and working on irrigation management.

Farmers are also fighting high nitrate levels at home.

Uhrmacher says his well tests between 9 and 10, but his son's well has tested higher.

"My son's house east of Roseland was also around 20 so we've got reverse osmosis units in all of our houses to keep the nitrates out," Uhrmacher said.

Uhrmacher says farmers also use additives to prevent leeching, split applications, and do grid sampling to see what areas can use less nitrogen before applying it.

But Urhmacher says producers from the past can't be blamed.

"They had no idea what they were doing and so you can't blame them, you know but it's something we know now, and as we learn more, we need to take corrective measures to help find the solutions for the problem."

Stange believes it's really about keeping up with technology, monitoring levels and using what's developed, even if it's pricey.


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