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Environmental group continues fight against contaminants, nitrates in Nebraska’s water

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Environmental group continues fight against contaminants, nitrates in Nebraska’s water

Sep 16, 2023 | 10:30 pm ET
By Zach Wendling
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Environmental group continues fight against contaminants, nitrates in Nebraska’s water
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The Lincoln-based Guardians of the Aquifer host a "What's in Our Water, Nebraska?" forum Saturday, Sept. 16, 2023. Included in the panel were environmental rights attorneys, researchers from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and University of Nebraska Medical Center and a former member of the Lower Platte Natural Resources District. (Zach Wendling/Nebraska Examiner)

LINCOLN — A Lincoln-based environmental group is encouraging local action to protect Nebraska’s water resources amid growing concerns about nitrates and other contaminants.

The Guardians of the Aquifer, a group founded in 2010 to oppose the Keystone XL pipeline, hosted a three-hour “What’s in Our Water, Nebraska” forum on Saturday with local experts from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and around the state. The group annually hosts a forum on health, climate and environmental issues.

‘Action is the antidote’

Mary Pipher, an author and clinical psychologist who founded the Guardians, said the event was designed to inform those in attendance about contaminants in the water and encourage action for a water table that is collapsing in some parts of the state.

“It’s time to get to work — if not us, who? If not now, when?” Pipher told a group at the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Union Hall in Lincoln. “Action is the antidote to despair.”

Crystal Powers, a research and extension communication specialist with UNL’s Nebraska Water Center, described water as one of the state’s most important resources.

“It is connected to everything we do,” she said.

Water access varies across the state due to different rivers and geographic differences, Powers said. For example, the southeast parts of the state, near Lincoln, receive about 2.5 times more rainfall compared to the northwest areas by Scottsbluff.

‘These are good people’

Nebraska has a major economic link to farming, and multiple speakers cautioned that while nitrates, pesticides and other contaminants are linked to farms, it’s not necessarily farmers and ranchers to blame.

“These are good people,” said Ken Winston, an attorney and executive director of Nebraska Interfaith Power & Light. “They want to take care of the land, but there are policies and practices that encourage practices that lead to water pollution.”

Some of those practices include confined animal farming operations (CAFOs) or corporate farms whose duty, Winston said, can be to make money for shareholders.

Various health risks

Jesse Bell, a professor and researcher of water, climate and health at UNL and the University of Nebraska Medical Center, said nitrate regulations are primarily focused on 10 parts per million (10 mg/L), which is when the risk increases for adverse health outcomes. This includes “blue baby syndrome,” when infants’ skin color changes due to a lack of oxygen in the blood.

Nitrates are naturally occurring in water, Bell said, and people are likely to digest them. However, the regulations were crafted around the risk of “blue baby syndrome” and not other hazardous effects that may occur at lower levels of exposure or from prolonged, chronic exposure.

Nitrate exposure health risks

Chronic exposure to nitrates has been correlated to many adverse health outcomes, including:

  • Adults — Cancers (colorectal, kidney and bladder), thyroid disease, non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, Alzheimer’s, diabetes and Parkinson’s.
  • Children — Pediatric brain cancers, methemoglobinemia (“blue baby syndrome”), birth defects and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma (a 2018 Nebraska study found a threefold increase in risk with combined exposure to nitrates and atrazine).
  • Maternal-fetal health — Fetal growth restrictions and central nervous system malformations.

— Jesse Bell, UNMC professor on water, climate and health

Nebraska has one of the highest rates of pediatric cancer, and nitrates are one factor, Bell said.

Though pediatric cancers have become easier to treat, he added, they can still lead to unexpected burdens such as relocating near UNMC for care.

“Because of that, anything that we can do to potentially reduce risk within our populations is one of the reasons I’m even up here today,” Bell said.

Bell and Daniel Snow, a research professor in UNL’s School of Natural Resources, said that nitrate exposures have been improving but that diligence is still required.

Future action

Jonathan Leo, an Omaha-based environmental and land-use attorney, described successful protests to prevent a chicken farm from securing a special use permit for a new CAFO in Lancaster County. It took multiple tries, Leo said, but protesters stopped the development partially due to networking with and lobbying county and planning commissioners.

Leo indicated future efforts may be focused in Gage County to oppose an Iowa-based CAFO seeking to move in. 

Pipher encouraged those in attendance to accomplish at least one task after the forum, whether it’s contacting Nebraska’s natural resources districts, running for office or talking to farmers. 

“Let’s all leave here and go to work,” she said.