‘Can’t keep doing things the same way’: Farmers face changes as nitrate levels increase

NEBRASKA - An issue decades in the making: nitrate levels in Nebraska.

"The education and voluntary acceptance of best management practices isn't combating the nitrate issue that we're faced with," said Mike Sousek, Lower Elkhorn Natural Resources District Manager. 

Water quality data collected over the past 40 years reveals nitrate concentrations are on the rise in some areas, according to the Lower Elkhorn Natural Resources District.

It's prompting experts to take action.

"The proposed regulations is...no fall application...water samples for irrigation wells once every four years...soil sampling...field reports," said Sousek.

Most recently, the data indicate elevated concentrations of nitrates in portions of Cuming, Colfax, and Dodge counties, reaching levels that could pose health risks to humans and the environment.

Farmers in those counties could face new regulations.

"We can't keep doing things the same way we've always done them," said Aaron Zimmerman, Owner of Zimmerman Inc. Farms in Pierce. "This is a situation that is not going to go away and it will likely get worse if nothing is done about it."

The rules aren't one size fits all for some. 

"There's going to be regulation, but I think it's important that we tailor those regulations specifically to the area, both considering soil type, farming methods as well as the distance to groundwater," said Andy Scholting, Nutrient Advisors President. 

As a crop consultant, Scholting said more information needs to be obtained before the regulations are enforced.

"It's really important that we get all the facts," said Scholting. "And we do all of the research that we can before we point the fingers at farmers today."

"Farmers do care a lot," said Zimmerman. "We treat this ground like it's family."

Nitrate levels are also affected by runoff from golf courses and lawn upkeep.

"The majority of the ground is under agricultural production of either livestock or crops," said Sousek. "So if you want significant change you would focus on the largest piece of that pie which is agriculture."

The regulations are already in place in Pierce county and more could be coming statewide.

"We're doing what we can and it just takes time to get this thing turned around because it seems like a monumental task right now," said Zimmerman. 

The proposed restrictions still need approval from the LENRD Board of Directors. That could happen in the next month or two, potentially altering the way farmers do their job.

"This is the first step in what may take multiple changes down the road," said Sousek.

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