Like many irrigated farming areas across the United States, the Central Platte Natural Resources District (NRD) faced problems with nitrate pollution in its groundwater. With the district’s shallow water table and widespread use of flood irrigation, fertilizer was leaching into the groundwater at levels that were detrimental to human health. Through education and regulation, Central Platte NRD has successfully turned the corner, and nitrate levels are now decreasing.
In this interview, Central Platte NRD General Manager Lyndon Vogt tells Irrigation Leader about how his NRD managed to address the nitrate issue and provides his advice for other groundwater managers facing similar issues.
Irrigation Leader: Please tell us about your background and how you came to be in your current position.
Lyndon Vogt: I grew up on a farm and ranch in north- central Nebraska and have an agribusiness degree. I’ve been an employee of Nebraska’s NRD system for 24 years. I started out as the water resources manager at Lower Niobrara NRD in Butte and was then promoted to the manager. I then transferred to Upper Niobrara White NRD in Chadron, where I was manager for 12 years. In spring 2013, I transferred to the Central Platte NRD in Grand Island.
Irrigation Leader: Please tell us about Central Platte NRD.
Lyndon Vogt: Back in the late 1960s, legislation was introduced in Nebraska to combine approximately 154 special interest groups dealing with natural resources issues into one set of natural resources districts. In 1972, 24 NRDs were created (since then, two have merged), with their boundaries determined by watershed boundaries. The NRDs have taxing authority and handle 12 responsibilities laid out in the legislation, ranging from groundwater management to flood control to erosion issues and solid waste. The NRDs are governed by locally elected boards, the members of which serve 4-year terms.
Central Platte NRD covers about 2.1 million acres, of which 1,029,213 are irrigated. Only 14,000 of those acres are strictly surface water irrigated. Another 77,000 acres have access to both surface water and groundwater. The remainder is irrigated by groundwater only. We have roughly 18,000 active irrigation wells in our district and 22,000 high-capacity wells in total.
Irrigation Leader: Why did Central Platte establish a groundwater management plan back in the 1980s?
Lyndon Vogt: We established the management plan because of high nitrate levels in the groundwater. Comparing the levels that we were recording back then to records from the late 1950s and early 1960s, we saw that nitrate levels were continually rising. That drove us to put together a groundwater management plan.
Irrigation Leader: Did the nitrates mostly come from fertilizers?
Lyndon Vogt: Yes. We have a pretty shallow water table here. This area was conducive to flood irrigation, so we had a lot of irrigation early on. Since the advent of the pivot, we’ve seen a lot of our rougher ground be developed too. Flood irrigation tends to use a lot of water, since farmers are trying to push the water to the end of the field, so it’s a little harder to manage, and as a result, a lot of chemicals and fertilizer were leaching into the soil.
Irrigation Leader: What were the main actions that were undertaken to address that nitrate issue?
Lyndon Vogt: We developed a plan that uses a phased approach, with lesser restrictions in areas low in nitrates and additional regulations in areas where the groundwater has higher nitrate concentrations. Areas with nitrate levels of less than 7.5 parts per million (ppm) are in phase 1, which is really just an educational phase. Phase 2 covers areas with levels of 7.6–15 ppm. That’s when our when our regulations kick in. Phase 3 covers areas with levels over 15.1 ppm.
We are the only district that has triggers above 10 ppm, which is higher than the drinking water standard. That’s because ours was the first plan in the state to be approved—and probably the first in the nation, too. I don’t think that the Nebraska Department of Natural Resources (DNR) allowed subsequent plans to move forward with triggers higher than the drinking water standard of 10 ppm.
We started with education. We have a full-time University of Nebraska employee in our office to do nitrogen demonstration projects. We’ve done over 400 nitrogen plots on producers’ farms. Then we got into the regulations. We require the producers to either pass a test or take a nitrogen management class on a 4-year rotating basis. We require farmers in phase 2 and 3 areas to do an annual crop report, which requires that they take water and soil samples to determine how much available nitrogen is in their water and soils. A couple of years ago, we transitioned to an online reporting system that shows farmers what the Central Platte NRD’s nitrogen fertilizer recommendation is for their crop. There is an educational aspect to the annual crop reports, in that they request that producers go back and look at how much water they applied, what available nutrients were in their soil and water, and what their crop demand was. It also shows the recommended amount of nitrogen for each of their fields based on crop type and yield goals. We have set restrictions on the fall application of nitrogen on sandy soils, because when this program began, we had a lot of anhydrous applied in the fall, which resulted in additional nutrient leaching. We see very little of that anymore.
Irrigation Leader: When you implemented this plan, did you have to cooperate with any other local, state, or federal agencies?
Lyndon Vogt: The Nebraska Legislature requires every NRD to have a groundwater management plan, but it didn’t require them to go to the lengths ours did at the time of its introduction. Our plan was reviewed and approved by the DNR. We had to go through public hearings and have public information meetings. The plan was not developed behind closed doors; it was done in the eyes of the public.
Irrigation Leader: How has the implementation of the plan changed over the years since you first introduced it?
Lyndon Vogt: The funny thing is that our plan hasn’t changed all that much. The board and staff who developed the plan did good research. The main changes we’ve made have been technological. We have a database that goes back to the late 1980s and shows how much water has been applied, what crops have been grown, and what the yields were. We used to manually enter the information from every crop report form. A couple of years ago, we moved everything online. We no longer accept paper forms. We have employees who can help producers who don’t have internet access or are having trouble with it. Not only does the new system help us, it’s also a recordkeeping system for the producers. They can enter their yields and yield goals and can also record notes. They can easily look up historical information on their crops, yields, nitrogen application, and so on.
Irrigation Leader: What have the results of your groundwater management plan been?
Lyndon Vogt: When we started back in 1987, our average nitrate level was about 19 ppm. As of this year, our average is about 13 ppm. We’ve seen positive results over the past 30 years. Our water quality didn’t degrade overnight. It degraded over a 40- to 50-year time frame after the advent of commercial fertilizers and irrigation. We’re fortunate in that we have a fairly stable supply of groundwater and a lot of irrigated acres. As long as we keep on reusing that water and not adding nitrogen to it, we have a pretty good, albeit slow, way of cleaning that groundwater.
Irrigation Leader: Is your NRD’s situation relevant to the situation of the Bazile Groundwater Management Area (BGMA)?
Lyndon Vogt: One of the biggest challenges with this sort of thing—and this is probably true nationwide—is that even if you have a test plot that gives reliable results, farmers who live 50 miles away tend to say that those methods won’t work where they live. It seems like you have to do the test plots in the areas where farmers are actively farming for them to pay a lot of attention to them.
Irrigation Leader: As the manager of an NRD with a successful groundwater management plan for nitrates, what advice do you have for groundwater managers dealing with similar issues?
Lyndon Vogt: My advice is to stick with it. Nothing’s going to happen overnight. Over time, the rise in the price of fertilizer has assisted us tremendously because it’s made producers look more carefully at how much fertilizer they are using. The educational part never ends. I think our water table is shallower than that in the BGMA, so their results won’t come quite as quickly, but they will come. It just takes time and patience. You’ll have a bad year or two—our levels will spike up a full part per million one year and drop one half or two parts the next year. Mother Nature plays a big role, too. We have years in which we get a tremendous amount of rain. Many variables are out of your control, but if you stick with your plan and the educational process and keep applying the proper amount of nutrients for your crop, you will succeed.
We’ve talked with quite a few entities about our plan because of its age and success. We’ve done presentations several different states, and a number of countries have come to look at our program, how we’re implementing it, and how it is accepted socially. We’re fortunate to have a successful program, and we’re fortunate that our board had the foresight to implement it back in the 1980s, because these types of programs are never popular, especially at first. One of the biggest challenges is enforcing your program. We file cease-and-desist orders, and we’ve been to court to make sure people submit their crop report forms and do their water and soil samples. The great majority of our producers see the benefit of the program.