Pretend for a moment that Nebraska somehow halted all use of nitrogen fertilizer – not a single speck more on our lawns, golf courses and corn fields.
What would happen?
The water we drink – which is increasingly laced with nitrate and, when untreated, potentially dangerous to children – would continue to be nitrate-laced and dangerous for years. Maybe decades.
That’s because, experts say, generations of corn growing, feedlot runoff and oft-unwitting nitrogen overuse has left a sobering legacy buried in the Nebraska soil. It’s nitrate, creeping slowly downward towards our water supply.
“It’s there, it’s moving towards the groundwater, and there’s not a thing we can do about it,” said Don Batie, a farmer near Lexington who serves on the Nebraska Natural Resources Commission.
That legacy makes it crucial that Nebraska react to our nitrate-in-water problem in 2023, said two dozen experts interviewed for this story.
The stakes are serious: Nebraska’s median nitrate level has doubled since 1978. High levels of nitrate in drinking water have been linked to pediatric cancers. Nitrate in water may be dangerous to children even at levels below what the federal government currently allows, new research suggests.
And Nebraska has the highest pediatric cancer rate of any state west of Pennsylvania, according to the Centers of Disease Control.
The Flatwater Free Press sought solutions to Nebraska’s nitrate problem from state lawmakers, Natural Resources District leaders, NRD board members, ag interest groups, water and soil experts, scientists, professors of public health, law and agriculture economics and Nebraska farmers and ranchers.
There is broad consensus in some areas. Nebraska needs to boost existing programs that can at least moderately reduce nitrate, those interviewed say. Among them: More education for farmers; more use of well-known conservation tools like the planting of cover crops; more encouragement of farming practices that reduce nitrate leaching into groundwater.
There is also agreement that Nebraska must spend millions more to safeguard the drinking water of its mid-sized cities, small towns and rural residents, though many of those interviewed say that costly filtration systems for water, while necessary, will only patch the problem.
But the consensus crumbles when some experts float more stringent steps – the only ways, they believe, that Nebraska water will grow cleaner in the future.
Ban farming practices known to be harmful, some say. Change federal farm policy so it discourages growing corn and encourages other crops that don’t require nitrogen fertilizer. Tax fertilizer overuse. Make the ag industry, not Nebraska taxpayers, pay for the filtration of polluted drinking water.
And, maybe most controversially: Mandate how much fertilizer Nebraska farmers can use.
Where experts fall on these aggressive solutions depends on their answers to a series of interlocking questions.
Can we ask farmers to change? Can we incentivize the ag industry to change?
Or will we have to force that change?
“The last thing that anything wants is the federal government to come in and boss everyone around on this issue,” says Logan Pribbeno, a fourth-generation rancher of Wine Glass Ranch near Imperial, who has implemented various conservation practices. “They aren’t gonna get it right.”
But Tim Gragert, an outgoing Republican state senator from Creighton, has grown frustrated with the current system – one in which there’s no penalty for farmers who over-fertilize or use practices known to pollute Nebraska’s water supply.
Gragert has worked on water quality issues for decades, both by authoring legislation and during a career with the federal Natural Resources Conservation Service.
“I’m all about local control until local control doesn’t happen,” he said, referring to NRDs and their locally-elected boards, which are tasked with regulating water quality. “Nobody wants mandates. I get it. But the voluntary system is simply not working.”
For decades, experts have sought to educate farmers on how and when to apply fertilizer, and how much to use on their corn.
Serious progress has been made in that time, says Ray Ward, the founder of Ward Laboratories in Kearney.
Ward would know. He’s 85 years old, did his first test for nitrate nearly six decades ago and is commonly known as the dean of the water and soil testing in Nebraska.
In that time, heeding the advice of experts like Ward, many Nebraska farmers have lowered their nitrogen usage by roughly a third per bushel of corn grown.
No one, including Ward, thinks that’s enough.
More farmers need to move away from fall application, the longstanding practice by which farmers put fertilizer on the ground after harvesting in the fall. It’s often easier logistically for the farmer, Ward said, but far worse for our water supply.
“Why have 6-8 months of nitrogen in the soil, with nothing using it, and then we wonder why it goes into the water?” Ward said. “I tell farmers, ‘Maybe it’s time to do chores again. Feed the corn when the corn needs to be fed, not when you want to put the feed out there.’”
More farmers should consider applying fertilizer at different points, a process known as split application, which allows less nitrate to leach in the soil, experts say. More farmers should use the proper amount of nitrogen on corn. Overuse isn’t as common as it once was, but still happens when farmers don’t properly test their soil or persist in believing that more fertilizer equals better corn.
It comes back to education, the argument goes. Reach more farmers – for example with Gragert’s recent bill LB925, which emphasizes more farmer-to-farmer education – and you can create more scenarios by which farmers leach less nitrate into our water while saving money.
“It really a win-win-win for the producer and the public and for the environment,” Gragert said.
But there’s one snag, other experts say: We have been trying similar plans in Nebraska for decades.
“We have done some education, we have done some compensation, we have tried to grease the skids on the uptick of some of these practices,” said Anthony Schutz, a University of Nebraska-Lincoln law professor and water law expert who also serves as a board member of his local NRD.
“I think it’s fair to say that it hasn’t been effective. We’re still left with the problem. So then, the question becomes: What else could we do?”
Schutz, Gragert and others believe it will take both more carrot and more stick to truly change Nebraska’s nitrate situation.
Silvia Secchi, a University of Iowa professor who researches the environmental impacts of agriculture and water sustainability, thinks people inside the ag industry – and even economists who study it – have bought into the fallacy that we can’t change basic policies.
“We pay farmers to pollute and then we pay them to clean up that pollution,” she said. “They farm in places where they wouldn’t otherwise farm, and use water and pollute water in ways that they wouldn’t otherwise do.”
The government could eliminate subsidies that currently encourage people to farm on flood plains, she said.
She and several others said the government could incentivize the growing of other crops, like alfalfa, wheat and oats, that were once more widely grown in Nebraska. These crops don’t need nitrogen fertilizer.
We could dis-incentivize or outright ban things like the fall application of fertilizer.
What’s needed, Secchi thinks, is a reorientation of farm policies toward the protection of our soil and water, in ways that still allow farmers to make a living, even if that living looks different.
“We have a right to ask for a policy that doesn’t shoot ourselves in the foot,” she said.
Schutz, the water law expert, wonders if we could protect our groundwater by further taxing the use of nitrogen fertilizer.
Nebraska already taxes the amount of water some farmers use to irrigate. Could it do the same with overuse of fertilizer?
He also wonders about helping cities and small towns that are on the hook for millions to clean up nitrate-laced drinking water. Currently, the largest polluters of that water – including giant feedlots, or those who wildly over-apply fertilizer and apply in the fall – pay no cost for that cleanup.
“When I go out and run in the spring (along the trail) there will be litter and beer bottles,” Schutz said. “And I have joked we should pay those folks to pick up the stuff they dropped.”
“No one thinks of it that way, because we have a strong anti-littering ethic. We don’t seem to have the same ethic when it comes to land uses and environmental harm.”
Gragert thinks things will change if there’s stricter regulation at the local level. In an interview, he challenged NRD boards and leaders to do more to protect groundwater. He said that the way regulation is set up – the NRDs in charge of farming, the Nebraska Department of Environment and Energy in charge of concentrated animal feeding operations, like feedlots – leads to turf battles between state and local governments. He said he’s seen situations where the state provides permits for a new feedlot, “within a watershed or an area that’s already way high in nitrate.”
Animal waste and runoff from feedlots often contributes to high nitrate in water, though experts generally believe it’s a smaller problem than nitrogen fertilizer.
“There is a lot of finger-pointing going on,” Gragert said. “That isn’t solving anything. What’s actually important is the NRD and the NDEE start working together to fix this. And again, currently, they are not.”
When you put the idea of increased regulation – especially if it comes from Washington, D.C. – in front of Nebraska farmers, ranchers and ag-business types, you best be prepared to duck.
Batie, the longtime Lexington-area farmer, has drastically lowered his nitrogen use over the decades, hasn’t done fall application of fertilizer in a half-century, and participates in trials meant to study the efficient use of fertilizer.
“But I am radically against being told, especially from the federal level down, what to grow and how to grow it,” he said. “How I can or cannot farm. That is against every fiber of my being.”
Jesse Bell says he understands the frustration from all angles.
Bell is a University of Nebraska Medical Center public health expert who grew up in Bloomfield, pop. 986. He has worked for the Centers for Disease Control, and he has also worked building hog barns.
Now he’s part of a team studying why and how nitrate is contributing to health risks in Nebraska. He has given presentations on the health risks associated with high nitrate to the boards of multiple NRDs.
Any solution must be workable, he thinks. It must be realistic. But any solution also needs to keep the focus on Nebraska farmkids, much like he once was – Nebraska kids who continue to get diagnosed with pediatric cancers at higher rates than almost anywhere else in America.
“As far as I can see, we have a water quality issue in the state, and that water quality issue has potential health impacts, especially on children,” said Bell, director of UNMC’s Water, Climate and Health program. “My goal in all of this: How do we reduce risk in those kids? That’s the first thing I want to try to tackle.”
This article was produced as a project for the University of Southern California Annenberg Center for Health Journalism’s 2022 National Fellowship.