The water many Nebraskans drink, shower with and take for granted is high in nitrate. And, after decades of inaction, the problem is growing worse. The statewide median nitrate level in our groundwater has doubled since 1978.
Fifty-nine different community water supplies have violated the EPA’s safe drinking water limit on nitrate in the past dozen years. Many residents, as well as rural Nebraskans who drink from largely unregulated private wells, may be unknowingly drinking and bathing in water that is dangerously high in nitrate.
The problem, experts say, stems chiefly from Nebraska’s biggest cash crop, corn, and the nitrogen fertilizer we apply to it to make it thrive. Runoff from feedlots and the fertilizer we apply on golf courses and lawns also leach nitrate into our water supply, though in much smaller amounts.
Despite the evidence that Nebraska’s nitrate problem is growing and spreading through regions of the state, state and local governments have never fined or stopped someone who is using excessive amounts of nitrogen fertilizer, NRD leaders say.
Why it matters
In a word, cancer.
Nebraska has the highest pediatric cancer rate west of Pennsylvania.
Recent University of Nebraska Medical Center studies have found that areas that have elevated nitrate levels also have elevated levels of lymphoma, leukemia and brain cancer rates in children.
High nitrate levels are closely linked to colorectal cancer, connected to thyroid disease and associated with birth defects, premature labor and miscarriages.
The nitrate problem is also costing Nebraska taxpayers serious amounts of cash to clean up when it gets out of control in a Nebraska town. Hastings, for example, had to spend $15 million on a reverse osmosis treatment system.
Read FFP reporter Yanqi Xu’s first story in our investigative project, Our Dirty Water.
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