Irrigation Leader
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Fighting Groundwater Nitrate Contamination in the Bazile Groundwater Management Area

Like many agricultural areas with sandy soils, northeastern Nebraska deals with nitrate from fertilizer leaching into its groundwater. In one region in particular, nitrate levels have risen to such a level that they threaten the health of the residents of 10 rural communities that are fully dependent on groundwater for their drinking supplies. In response, the four natural resources districts (NRDs) whose territories overlap this area have decided to work together to address nitrate pollution in the area they have designated the Bazile Groundwater Management Area (BGMA). By joining forces and funds and applying for federal and state grants, they are supporting mitigation activities like education and awareness raising, reporting requirements, and the implementation of agricultural best practices. 

In this special interview series, Irrigation Leader speaks with Terry Julesgard, Dennis Schueth, Mike Sousek, and Annette Sudbeck—the managers of the Lower Niobrara, Upper Elkhorn, Lower Elkhorn, and Lewis & Clark NRDs, respectively—about the history of nitrate contamination in the region, its effects on human health, and what the four NRDs are doing to combat it.

Terry Julesgard - Lower Niobrara NRD

Irrigation Leader: Please tell us about your background and how you came to be in your current position.

Terry Julesgard: I have been the general manager of the Lower Niobrara NRD for 9 years. Prior to that, I worked at the Lewis & Clark NRD as a technician for 10 years. Prior to that, I spent 2 years at the Upper Republican NRD in Imperial, Nebraska.

Irrigation Leader: Please tell us about the Lower Niobrara NRD.

Terry Julesgard: The Lower Niobrara NRD has a total of 1,699,200 acres with a population of 6,985. We have 234,957 irrigated acres; the remainder is pasture, communities, and rivers. Our primary responsibly is to ensure water quality and quantity. We provide conservation 

trees and planting services for windbreaks. We also have cost-share programs for well abandonment, nitrogen management, domestic well replacement, and home water treatment systems. In addition, we provide cost-share programs for rangeland management needs, like cross fencing and water supply systems.

Irrigation Leader: What are the NRD’s top issues today? 

Terry Julesgard: Our top issue today is water quality, particularly with reference to high nitrate concentrations in the groundwater. With a lot of land in row-crop agriculture coupled with coarse soils, it’s pretty easy for nitrates to travel into the groundwater supply.

We group our land into phase categories that reflect management levels. For about 15 years, the entire district has been in phase 1 nitrogen management, with several areas in the phase 2 category, which reflected nitrate levels of 5–9 parts per million (ppm) or higher. Last year, nitrate levels rose to the point that we moved 90 percent of our irrigated acres into the phase 2 category. We have nitrate levels as high as 50 ppm in some areas.

Irrigation Leader: At what point does it become unsafe to drink?

Terry Julesgard: Nitrate levels above 10 ppm can potentially cause health issues, especially among the very young and the very old.

Irrigation Leader: How does the geography of your area affect the issue?

Terry Julesgard: We have a lot of coarse-textured soil as well as shallow groundwater tables, so it doesn’t take much overwatering for the nitrogen applied to the crops to get flushed through the soil profile into the groundwater system.

Irrigation Leader: How is the NRD addressing the issue?

Terry Julesgard: We’ve been addressing it primarily with education. All our producers have to be nitrogen certified, and that certification has to be renewed every 4 years. We explain the issues to them and promote best management practices like using soil moisture gauges and accounting for all the potential nitrogen sources that are in the soil to avoid overapplication.

The biggest hurdle we face is getting the producers to understand that applying more nitrogen does not translate to more profitable farming. For one thing, instead of aiming at the highest number of bushels, they need to aim at the highest revenue per acre. Second, all the work we’ve done shows that nitrogen and water are not the only factors that limit yields. There are other limiting factors, and we need to identify them so that farmers do not simply add more nitrogen in the hopes of achieving a higher yield.

Irrigation Leader: How have you cooperated with other NRDs in the area on this issue? 

Terry Julesgard: Quite a few years ago, our NRD, the Upper Elkhorn NRD, the Lower Elkhorn NRD, and the Lewis & Clark NRD all recognized that we had issues with high nitrates. We started doing some studies on where it was coming from, and since then, the four of us have worked together with our phase levels and in trying to educate the producers on reducing their nitrogen application.

Irrigation Leader: Have you been inspired by any other areas that have successfully dealt with similar nitrate groundwater issues?

Terry Julesgard: We’ve looked at some of the work that’s been done in the Central Platte NRD, which has managed to reduce nitrate levels in some areas. We will also be working with the University of Nebraska to get information that’s pertinent to our area. Our producers often say that some solutions work in the Platte River system, but don’t work here. We want to figure out which management practices work in this area, too. This will be our first year having some test plots in coordination with the University of Nebraska. We are trying to think outside the box as much as possible and bring in experts who have done a lot with cover crops and improving soil health. We are also working with the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) to get the soil healthy, which will improve our nitrate issues.

Irrigation Leader: What is your message to the Nebraska Legislature and to Congress?

Terry Julesgard: Keep our NRDs intact, because we are doing a lot of great things for the state. The dedicated directors, managers, and staff of Nebraska’s NRDs are working to maintain the quality of Nebraska’s abundant supply of water and make sure that it is available for beneficial use for all Nebraskans. 

Dennis Schueth - Upper Elkhorn NRD

Irrigation Leader: Please tell us about the BGMA. 

Dennis Schueth: I was hired by the Upper Elkhorn NRD in 1986. Data we collected in late 1989 and the early 1990s suggested that we needed to initiate a project that we named the Bazile Triangle because of the geographic area it encompassed. Ultimately, we ended up cooperating and partnering with the University of Nebraska Extension and Conservation Survey Division and three other NRDs that were affected by groundwater issues in this area. The primary reason the four NRDs have focused on this area, which we today call the BGMA, is that it encompasses 10 rural communities with significant drinking water needs. Our primary objective is to protect the water resources for those communities and the many rural residents living nearby.

Irrigation Leader: When was the BGMA formally designated?

Dennis Schueth: The plan was approved in October 2016.

Irrigation Leader: Please tell us about the coordination between the four NRDs.

A demonstration of the use of a Highboy applicator to plant cover crops into corn at the August 2019 Demonstration Field Day.

Dennis Schueth: The NRDs have all been willing to work together. The issue doesn’t stop at one NRD boundary line; it affects all four. That common concern led us to want to work towards a common goal of educating the general public about the nitrate levels in this area. Our objective was to secure public support for necessary changes in management practices throughout the area. We want to educate members of the public, whether they are row-crop farmers, livestock producers, or urban residents, on how best to reduce the amount of nitrogen reaching the groundwater, with the aim of bringing nitrogen levels down to or below federal health-standard levels.

Irrigation Leader: Is there a formal arrangement that outlines how the NRDs share the costs and responsibilities of this project?

Dennis Schueth: It is a shared responsibility. The four NRDs have applied for grants made available by the Federal Clean Water Act. These funds, which are known as 319 funds, are made available by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and provided to the Nebraska Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ). The BGMA budget is also covered through direct contributions from the four NRDs, with two of them contributing 30 percent of the costs each and the other two covering 20 percent each. By investing this money into best management practices, we can also qualify for cost-share funding through NRCS programs like the Environmental Quality Incentives Program, which can cover as much as 90 percent of project costs. One best management practice that is of great interest to row-crop producers is the use of cover crops. Cover crops can hold nitrogen in the top 3 feet of soil, which is their root zone. This nitrogen then can be used by the overlying crop, reducing the amount of nitrogen leaching into the groundwater. 

The 319 funds I mentioned were the first groundwater-focused plan in the nation to address nonpoint-source pollution, which is pretty impressive. We are proud of that distinction and hope we can be an example for the rest of the nation regarding how to handle groundwater nitrate issues.

Irrigation Leader: What is nonpoint-source pollution, and what is its significance in this instance?

Dennis Schueth: Nonpoint-source pollution is pollution you can't trace back to any particular source. Point-source pollution is pollution that can be traced back to a direct source, for instance, a leaking fuel tank. In the situation we are confronting in the BGMA, where we have identified nitrates at a higher-than-acceptable level, we know that nitrogen is being applied on multiple sites and that no one single application is causing it.

Irrigation Leader: How long do you predict that these groundwater management activities will need to continue in their present state?

Dennis Schueth: This is a long-term initiative, as far as the four NRD partners are concerned. We are pursuing additional state and federal grants and continuing to build and manage our individual budgets with the objective of continuing to fund this initiative. In addition, we have jointly hired a project coordinator, Connor Baldwin, to work with the NRCS, other departments and agencies, and the general public. We have also received funding through a National Water Quality Initiative for this area. These are federal funds that are administered through the NRCS. This funding is used to build our outreach efforts and to provide cost-share funding to producers and others to focus attention on the nitrogen issue.

When we first zeroed in on the Bazile Triangle, our focus was just on the farming community. However, our efforts in the BGMA today are much more holistic. We are looking at the effects of the nitrate issue on a much broader level and have broken it into a series of tiers based on time of travel. The University of Nebraska–Lincoln’s Conservation Survey Division runs time-of-travel models that help us determine how far contaminants will spread within the management area within a certain period of time. This in turn helps us determine steps to mitigate the negative effects associated with such contaminants. 

Mike Sousek - Lower Elkhorn NRD

Irrigation Leader: Please tell us about your background and how you came to be in your current position.

Mike Sousek: About 25 years ago, I was a microbiologist for the drug company Pfizer. I got tired of working in a lab, and I enjoyed nature, so when a friend of a friend gave me a call and offered me a job in the NRD system, I took it and haven’t looked back. I started getting my fingers in a little bit of everything. I worked for a district based in Wahoo, Nebraska, for 15 years; 5 years ago, I came to Norfolk to become the general manager of the Lower Elkhorn NRD.

Irrigation Leader: Please tell us about the NRD and its services. 

Mike Sousek: The Lower Elkhorn NRD covers all or part of 15 counties. We manage about 2.5 million acres of ground, 650,000 acres of which is irrigated crop ground. Most of that is irrigated by center pivots. Almost 100,000 people live in the district.

Irrigation Leader: What is the scale of nitrate pollution in the groundwater in your district, and what are the potential effects?

Mike Sousek: The nitrate issue does not affect every part of our district, but we definitely have some hotspots, including the BGMA. That area is not defined by county lines or any other arbitrary lines on a map, but by geology. In Nebraska, we grow a lot of corn. Some areas have good soil for that, but other areas have a lot of sand in the soil. When corn is grown in those sandy soils, they have a hard time holding nutrients, which get flushed through. We’re also sitting on top of a lot of water in our aquifer system. Starting around the late 1970s, we started seeing nitrates and commercial fertilizer showing up in the groundwater. Since then, the levels have been increasing and have not plateaued yet. 

The main factor is the efficiency of corn and its ability to tie up the nitrogen. Another factor is farming practices. Farmers used to frontload their nitrogen application—they would apply it all at the beginning of the growing season. Obviously, a plant doesn’t need it all at once, so some of it washed away. Our district has now established some regulations in these areas that require farmers to split-apply the nitrogen—they can only put on so much at a time. Our rules allow farmers to put no more than 50 pounds of nitrogen on at one pass; they can go up to 80 pounds per pass if they include a stabilizer or an inhibitor. We’re also doing things like soil and water samples. When producers plant corn, we want them to account for the nitrogen that’s already in the system instead of adding more to it. But it is almost impossible to stop the nitrogen from going through the sand. Until we can build the organic material in the soil profile, the nitrogen is going to keep leaching into the aquifer.

Irrigation Leader: Is fertigation being used to reduce the amount of fertilizer applied at one time?

Mike Sousek: A lot of producers use that method to apply fertilizer and other chemicals, but we don’t currently require it. We have discussed whether we should require it or not. It is the most efficient way to apply nitrogen, but if we are in a wet season and a field is already saturated, a farmer is not going to want to turn their pivot on just to apply nitrogen.

Irrigation Leader: Is it accurate to say that you have not yet found the permanent solution to the nitrate issue?

Mike Sousek: That’s correct. Everything we’re doing seems to be reactive. I’m starting to have discussions with scholars at the University of Nebraska, including Dr. Ron Yoder and Dr. Chittaranjan Ray, about whether it is truly impossible to stop the leaching of commercial fertilizer through these sandy profiles. If that is the case, then rather than spend all our time focusing on how to grow corn, maybe we should look at growing something else or developing another market entirely. How can we ensure that the producers still profit from their properties? I’ve started try to change the economic paradigm completely. I have one producer on my board who is actually going to stop planting corn altogether and install a 2,500-acre solar farm. Is producing energy instead of corn a realistic option? How many transmission lines would we need? Those questions are still being worked out.

Irrigation Leader: Is your groundwater hitting levels of nitrate that make it unhealthy to drink?

Mike Sousek: They’re way beyond unhealthy. The EPA’s drinking water maximum contaminant level is 10 ppm. I have irrigation wells out there in the 40–50 ppm range. At a certain point, animals can’t even drink the water—they start aborting their calves. There are also effects on human health. Blue baby syndrome and certain types of cancer can be directly linked to nitrogen. Some of the recent research I’ve seen looks at the combination of multiple factors. For instance, if you have both atrazine and nitrogen in your water source, the rates of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma among people who are exposed are 2.5 times higher than normal; for indolent B-cell lymphoma, the rate is 3.5 times higher. In Pierce County and Madison County, which are overlap the Bazile area, the rates of congenital anomalies are double the national average—birth defects occur in 6 percent of cases rather than 3 percent. Researchers are still looking for the definitive explanation for all this, but it seems to be caused by the combination of nitrogen and other nitrosatable agrichemicals. 

Irrigation Leader: Have you drawn ideas from any other parts of the country or the state that have successfully dealt with this problem?

Mike Sousek: The Central Platte NRD, which is based in Grand Island, has an area where nitrate levels have plateaued and may have gone down a little bit. However, in terms of geology, the depth to groundwater in that district is 5–10 feet, which means that levels in its system can turn around much more quickly than ours. Our depth to groundwater is 80–100 feet, which means that years’ worth of nitrogen still hasn’t reached the aquifer. Another difference is that the Central Platte NRD had a lot of flood irrigation along the Platte River. It carried out a program to convert the flood irrigation to center pivots. That change alone is probably what made the nitrate levels drop. Unfortunately, we have little flood irrigation in this area, so we can’t use the same solution. 

Irrigation Leader: What should the Nebraska Legislature and Congress know about this issue? 

Mike Sousek: We need help to address this problem. I don’t know whether the ultimate solution will be to change the paradigm altogether and get away from corn. This is not a problem that one local agency is going to be able to solve on its own. We’re going to need innovation and new technology. We’re trying to solve this problem on the back end in a reactive manner, and nothing that we’re doing has the results that we’re looking for. If we want to keep growing corn in this area, we will need to either relocate the people here or provide treatment systems. But it is difficult to see how the communities in this area would be able to afford the capital outlays and yearly operating costs of the kind of treatment system that would be necessary. 

Annette Sudbeck - Lewis & Clark NRD 

Irrigation Leader: Please tell us about your background and how you came to be in your current position. 

Annette Sudbeck: I graduated from Wayne State College in Wayne, Nebraska, in 1998 and worked in natural resources–related fields in the area. I started at Lewis & Clark NRD as a resources technician in 2011. I trained closely with the manager and directors while working with the public on groundwater rules and regulations and water quality and quantity monitoring. I took over as NRD manager in 2016. 

Irrigation Leader: Please tell us about Lewis & Clark NRD.

The Elkhorn River.

Annette Sudbeck: Lewis & Clark NRD is just under a million acres in total size with a population of about 15,000, based on the 2000 census. Our priorities have always been water quality and quantity, soil erosion, and flood protection. We have some hilly areas where erosion affects surface water and results in a loss of resources, which is a concern for the district. There is another area of the district where we have built 50 watershed structures for flood protection and to prevent gully erosion. 

Irrigation Leader: Please tell us about the scale of nitrate pollution in your groundwater and what the potential effects are. 

Annette Sudbeck: The issue of nitrates first became apparent in our district in the BGMA. It’s a great area for growing corn and beans because there are good groundwater resources available at a shallow pumping level. However, the soil there is sandy, and when a shallow water table is combined with porous, sandy soil, nitrates permeate the water table quickly. We are now starting to see nitrate pollution in other areas of the district as well, including areas that don’t have sandy soil. In some areas, the distance between the surface and the aquifer is substantial, but in others the two are close. In all cases, the nitrates that leave the root zone are headed toward the water resources, which extends this concern well beyond our management area. 

Irrigation Leader: Is most of the drinking water in your area pumped from groundwater? 

Annette Sudbeck: The majority of our district relies on groundwater. However, 900 rural households and 4 of the 16 or 17 communities in our district are served by surface water. That’s not due to nitrates, but rather to the quantity and quality parameters associated with the limited aquifers that exist in the northern portion of the district. 

Irrigation Leader: What is the Lewis & Clark NRD doing to address the nitrate issue? 

Annette Sudbeck: The number 1 response has been education. We want to make sure the public and the producers who are applying nitrogen to their crops or lawns are aware of the effect these applications are having. Second, we have been working with producers to establish rules and regulations and encourage practices that are designed to turn the problem around. Some aspects of this are voluntary, but it also involves mandatory reporting. That is one of the key methods we use to track how much nitrogen is left in the soil profile after the growing season. This helps producers decide how much nitrogen they need for the next growing season. We have also imposed limitations on when producers can apply nitrogen fertilizer. We conduct water quality monitoring and require deep-soil sampling so that producers are fully aware of the nitrogen that is available to them in the water and soil and can make the best choices for their growing season. The board is reviewing its rules and regulations and making revisions in 2020 that will probably go into effect for the 2021 crop-growing year.

Irrigation Leader: Are the reporting requirements and regulations that you have in place unique to your district or are they shared across NRDs?

Annette Sudbeck: All four NRDs in the BGMA require some form of reporting, but because we are all led by locally elected boards, our rules and regulations differ. Our reporting requirements differ, as do our requirements for best management practices.

Irrigation Leader: What effects have your education programs had?

Annette Sudbeck: We’ve seen more involvement on the part of the producers and more awareness of what they’re doing. We’ve also seen nitrate use starting to decline, but because nitrates were applied to the soil for many, many years before these rules were ever implemented, turning the problem around is going to take a number of years. Because of the sandy soils, nitrate leaches faster in this vicinity than in some other areas of the state and the district. While the escalation of the nitrogen level in the groundwater has slowed, it has not yet leveled off. 

Irrigation Leader: Have you drawn ideas from other areas of the country or the state that have successfully dealt with a similar problem?

Annette Sudbeck: Yes, we constantly have our ear to the ground, not only in paying attention to other areas of the country, but by reading articles and otherwise following what other folks are experiencing and what they’re doing to address the issue. We are interested to know how effective voluntary methods are compared to mandatory regulations. We would also like to know about the efficacy of whole-farm planning as opposed to corn and bean rotation. We are listening for ideas from any helpful source.

Irrigation Leader: What should the Nebraska Legislature and Congress know about this issue?

Annette Sudbeck: It is critical to protect our water resources. If we don’t do it now, it will be even harder in the future.

Food is important. These producers are producing food for our nation, and that typically requires chemicals. Any time you apply chemicals to the soil, some of them will leach through to the groundwater. It’s costly to turn that contamination around, so maybe we need to focus on areas that have less leaching potential. But in order to do that, we need to provide those producers with a way to be successful financially.

One of the biggest issues is explaining to the public why it should care and what the health considerations related to this issue are. In Nebraska, as in many places throughout the nation, groundwater is plentiful. It looks good, it tastes good, and there’s nothing that indicates there is anything about it that can lead to long-term consequences. It’s hard to convey the importance of this topic to the public. This issue is easily overlooked, and it is difficult to make people aware of the costs that are involved in providing this fresh and safe resource. 

Terry Julesgard is the general manager of the Lower Niobrara Natural Resources District. He can be contacted at terryj@nntc.net, (402) 775-2343 (office), or (402) 340-3224 (cell).

Dennis Schueth is the general manager of the Upper Elkhorn Natural Resources District. For more about the Upper Elkhorn NRD, visit uenrd.org.

Mike Sousek is the general manager of the Lower Elkhorn Natural Resources District. For more about the Lower Elkhorn NRD, visit lenrd.org.

Annette Sudbeck is the general manager of the Lewis & Clark Natural Resources District. She can be contacted at asudbeck@lcnrd.org.