Managing Nebraska's Water Is Critical to the Health of Its People and Crops
By: Celeste Kenworthy
Connor Baldwin grew up in a town with contaminated drinking water – the kind linked to a slew of potentially fatal health problems for infants and adults.
At the time, the residents of Creighton, Nebraska, didn’t know why it was happening or what could be done about it.
They didn’t know that nitrates – from all of the fertilizers used by local farmers – could cause blue baby syndrome and certain cancers.
Five years later, Baldwin is working to change that as the project manager of the Bazile Groundwater Management Area, a cooperative effort to manage the rising nitrate levels of the area.
But it won’t be easy.
“Even if everything we are doing right now is absolutely perfect, we wouldn’t even see a change for probably 50 years, at least,” Baldwin said.
And climate change may make Baldwin’s job even more difficult.
In addition to rising temperatures, experts predict climate change also will bring more floods, more droughts and more extreme precipitation events. In Nebraska, the state with the most irrigated acres, managing the quantity and quality of groundwater becomes increasingly important.
Nebraska Water Facts:
- Nebraska, the 16th largest state, has the most irrigated acres in the United States
- Almost half of the cropland in Nebraska is irrigated, mainly with groundwater
- In 2017, about a quarter of Nebraska’s economy was attributed to agriculture
- More than 85% of Nebraskan’s get their drinking water from groundwater
More extreme precipitation events could contribute to flooding and push more nitrates into drinking water sources. The rising temperatures could pose an additional threat. As Nebraska gets hotter, more water will be needed for crops, potentially straining groundwater resources. This could lead to groundwater depletion if it’s not properly managed.
“There’s not one fix for everything,” said Tiffany Messer, Ph.D., assistant professor of biosystems engineering at the University of Kentucky. “One thing that is important to consider is what combination of water quality improvement practices we can use and positioning them in the best possible location.”
In a state where 85% of Nebraskans get their drinking water from groundwater, one of the most valuable tools in managing that water is the Natural Resources Districts. These 23 NRDs, with boundaries based on river basins, are key parts to the solutions.
Groundwater in Nebraska is found mainly in the High Plains Aquifer, a vast area of water-saturated rock and sediment that stretches from South Dakota to Texas and includes the Ogallala Aquifer. Two-thirds of the aquifer underlies Nebraska, enough water to cover all of the 50 states in more than 1.5 feet of water.
Although most of the water in the High Plains Aquifer is found in Nebraska, the aquifer underlies seven other states. Groundwater in the aquifer is managed differently across these states, said Karina Schoengold, Ph.D., associate professor of agricultural economics at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln.
“Each state across the High Plains Aquifer has different rules about how they manage the aquifer. And in Nebraska, what we’ve done is created this NRD system that provides groundwater management authority to these entities,” Schoengold said.
Managing groundwater quantity will be important as climate change leads to hotter temperatures in Nebraska.
“What that means is that crop water needs are going to increase relative to what we have now. And so it’s going to mean more demand for irrigation water,” Schoengold said. “Not only is it going to be hotter on average, but that year-to-year variability will increase with climate change, with more floods and more droughts.”
To manage these concerns, one solution Schoengold sees is the NRDs allowing transfers between users.
“Most entities have pretty restrictive regulations about transferring water,” Schoengold said. “Looking at that more carefully and trying to develop systems that allow transfers while still protecting the aquifer and not adding to depletion is going to help manage the aquifer long-term.”
Aquifer management is critical to the state’s agriculture, especially as Nebraska is predicted to experience more droughts due to climate change.
In November 2020, almost 86% of Nebraska was in a moderate or more severe drought. Almost 12% was in extreme or exceptional drought.
In 2012, record-breaking high temperatures and low precipitation resulted in widespread drought in Nebraska. Demand for groundwater irrigation was much higher than normal. As a result, from spring 2012 to spring 2013, 91% of measured wells recorded groundwater declines, some up to 20 feet.
Despite this yearlong drought, from spring 2009 to spring 2019, Nebraska experienced an overall rise in groundwater levels near 1 foot due to increased precipitation. Some regions still experienced overall declines, however, including much of the Upper Republican NRD, a three-county region in Southwest Nebraska.
The main reason for these ongoing declines is the density of irrigated cropland, said Nate Jenkins, assistant manager of the UPNRD. This land was largely developed for irrigation before the NRDs were given the ability to regulate groundwater use in the late 1970s.
Once given the authority in 1979, however, the URNRD went straight to work reducing the amount of water allocated for irrigation by 40%. Combined with a ban on new wells, the use of water-saving technology by farmers and other measures, this has drastically reduced the rate of groundwater decline, Jenkins said.
“We became what is believed to be the first entity in the US to limit how much groundwater farmers could pump for irrigation and require flow meters on all wells,” Jenkins said in an email.
“Our goal is to eventually eliminate groundwater declines. Given our track record, and the efficiency of irrigators in the area, we believe we can do it.”
It is difficult, Jenkins said, to gauge the impact climate change has had on the district without knowing what a “no-climate-change baseline” would have been. But for future climate change, he believes the NRD will be helped by genetically engineered crops that will require less water, more efficient water use and regulations that will limit overdrafts during extended droughts.
Over the last 30 years, Nebraska’s annual average precipitation has increased by about 2 inches, and this trend is expected to continue in the future.
And when this precipitation occurs could change, too. Experts expect the winter and spring to become wetter while the summer becomes drier. The amount of rain falling in heavy rainfall events is also expected to increase.
During Mike Jess’s 25-year tenure at the Nebraska Department of Water Resources, he worked on finding solutions to Nebraska’s water issues. Today, he feels confident there are solutions to climate change-related problems, including changes in precipitation.
“We will more and more realize the value of storing water in large reservoirs that will come from runoff events as a result of climate change. If we don’t do that, the likelihood of flooding will increase,” Jess said.
Communities are working to minimize the potential damage of flooding that may become more likely by avoiding residential and commercial development in flood prone areas, Jess said.
As demonstrated in the spring of 2019, flooding can be devastating. Rapid snowmelt and heavy rainfall on frozen ground put large areas of Nebraska underwater, costing over $3 billion in infrastructure damage and crop and cattle losses.
That flooding also caused an Omaha wastewater treatment plant to stop operations and dump 65 million gallons of untreated sewage daily into the Missouri River, polluting surface water.
From nitrate contamination to groundwater extraction for irrigation, the agricultural industry impacts Nebraska’s water. So, as climate change heats up, people are turning to farmers for solutions.
“We are bombarded today in agriculture. That is a big ball of twine for us to swallow on our farm. There is no doubt that climate change plays a role,” said Roric Paulman, a third-generation farmer. With his wife Deb, he owns Paulman Farms, an approximately 10,000-acre farm, 80% of which is irrigated with groundwater.
“Do we have climate change on our webpage? No. But I think if you went through the progression of how we do things, we’re trying to address it in very, very many ways.”
Technology can help. Paulman uses soil moisture probes, satellite imagery and weather stations to help conserve water.
“Historically, we would have irrigated in the absence of that predictability. Now, we can have higher and higher levels of confidence that we really are going to get those rain events,” Paulman said.
For farmers, water conservation is as much an economic discussion as an environmental one. It costs about $7 to pump and deliver an acre-inch of water to his field, Paulman said. He said there is no ‘silver bullet’ to help conserve water, but a wide variety of considerations.
“We are managing the system somewhat in a way that Mother Nature would except that we have the tools, the data, the measurement sources, to be able to work inside of that,” Paulman said.
He believes in individual responsibility and stewardship.
“If you do nothing long enough, you get what you deserve,” Paulman said. “If you ignore those signals long enough, there’ll be some type of tax, or some type of penalty that could put you out of business.”
Nitrates in Nebraska
Nitrates are applied by farmers to help produce the crops that contribute billions of dollars to Nebraska’s economy. When nitrates become concentrated in drinking water sources, however, they are costly to get rid of and threaten public health.
The slow movement of groundwater means nitrates that were applied as fertilizer by farmers decades ago are just now reaching the drinking water supplies of communities.
This makes reducing nitrate levels challenging.
In Creighton, Nebraska, a town of 1,200 people, two wells provide the drinking water, and both are well over the 10 parts per million limit deemed safe for drinking by the Environmental Protection Agency.
The $1.3 million reverse osmosis system Creighton uses to remove nitrates from the water makes for expensive water bills. But the consequences of drinking water with high levels of nitrates could be much worse.
“There’s a lot of old farmers around the Creighton area a little bit out in the country that aren’t drinking the treated water in Creighton that are getting cancers,” said Connor Baldwin, project manager of the Bazile Groundwater Management Area, a cooperative effort to manage the rising nitrate levels of the area.
In addition to certain cancers, high nitrate levels in drinking water are also linked to blue baby syndrome, a potentially fatal condition that decreases the ability of blood to carry oxygen in infants.
The BGMA is working to manage high nitrate levels mainly through cost-share programs to promote best management practices that reduce the likelihood of nitrates getting into drinking water.
Baldwin handles everything from the first meeting to writing the check that helps farmers implement the best management practices.
“Right now, we’re the only ones that are trying to change anything and we’re government. People don’t want to listen to the government. They stay as far away as they can,” Baldwin said.
He says their efforts to slow nitrate contamination could be helped by the community.
“If the farmers are seeing people in the community speaking up about it, and meeting about it, then they’re going to be more willing to make a change rather than if it’s just coming from us,” Baldwin said. “Really, the best thing they can do is speak up.”
Once nitrates move through the soil into groundwater, they are more challenging to remove, said Tiffany Messer, Ph.D., assistant professor of biosystems engineering at the University of Kentucky.
“So what we try to do is remove it before it gets down into the groundwater,” Messer said. Wetlands, flooded areas low in oxygen, are one way to accomplish that. “I like to think of them as your superstars when it comes to nitrate removal particularly.”
People can also take steps in their neighborhoods to help protect water quality, Messer said.
“My number one thing is read the directions on whatever you’re applying to your lawn. If it says to only apply a certain amount, do not over apply it. Because what that’s doing is preventing that runoff coming from your lawn.”