Clean water doesn’t come cheap: Nebraska towns are shelling out millions to treat nitrate-laced drinking water.
This article was produced as a project for the USC Annenberg Center for Health Journalism’s 2022 National Fellowship.
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Photo by Laura Beahm for the Flatwater Free Press
Marty Stange was grasping for solutions to keep 25,000 residents safe – and a city’s budget from breaking.
It was 2015. Multiple wells providing water to the central Nebraska city were testing high for nitrate.
Hastings, like all cities, is required by law to keep the nitrate level under 10 parts per million – the level the Environmental Protection Agency has long deemed safe for human consumption.
But back in 2011, one Hastings well had tested at a nitrate level of 19.5 ppm, nearly double the legal limit.
Stange, the city’s longtime environmental director and water manager, had already shut off some wells when they passed that threshold. More were nearing it.
“I did a forecast of how much nitrates were going to be in the wells, “Stange said. “And I said by the year 2016, we would not have enough (water) to meet our peak hourly demand.”
Nebraska’s groundwater is becoming increasingly laced with nitrate, the invisible contaminant that causes blue baby syndrome and is linked to various cancers. And small towns, cities and rural Nebraskans are increasingly getting stuck paying the tab – forced to choose from a series of costly fixes that can easily run into the millions of dollars while also not necessarily solving the problem for good.
Some 59 of Nebraska’s 598 community water systems – roughly 10% – have tested nitrate levels higher than the EPA standard at least once since 2010. Towns have invested in multi-million clean water projects that many experts fear are patches that might stop working before the projects are even paid off.
For Hastings, the most robust solution, a citywide filtration system, wouldn’t come cheap: $45 million, give or take.
So Stange and his team came up with their own patch. They began to treat part of Hastings’ water, inject the treated water back into the Ogallala Aquifer water, then supply the blended water to city residents.
This cost: roughly $15 million.
The approach kept Hastings’ water below that 10 parts per million nitrate standard – but not by much. Hastings’ water routinely tests between 7–9 parts per million. That’s higher than what a top University of Nebraska Medical Center researcher says she would let children drink, due to the threat of pediatric cancers.
A Flatwater analysis of water treatment facilities in McCook, Seward, Hastings, Pender and Creighton found the combined capital cost of those five projects totaled $34 million.
The cost to maintain and operate the new equipment drives that number higher. For Nebraska towns with fewer than 500 residents, the annual maintenance cost soars as high as $650 per person, according to University of Nebraska research.
The price tag for high nitrate appears poised to climb further. The state will likely fund roughly $49 million in water projects that will serve only 18,000 residents just this fiscal year, according to a Flatwater Free Press analysis of state records.
And it’s historically even worse for those, like farm families, who live outside of city limits. These Nebraskans are often on their own to test their water and install a treatment system, though the federal government, the state and local natural resources districts have recently taken steps to defray those costs.
In all, some 71 public water systems in Nebraska have installed costly water filtration systems. These include 11 different small towns and dozens of schools, churches, shops and country clubs, according to data provided by the Nebraska Department of Environment and Energy.
Many others are grasping for cheaper solutions. They are drilling new wells, connecting to a neighboring city’s water supply – and wondering how long any of this will work.
“We’re taking money out of people’s pocket,” Stange said. “As someone who’s trying to say, ‘I want to be the best I can for the community’s public health,’ do I just on a whim raise water rates? That’s a tough position.”
Nebraska towns like Hastings find themselves forced into an unenviable cost-benefit analysis.
Hastings’ city water hovers just below the EPA limit for nitrate. But scientists have identified a correlation between high nitrate and higher risks of health conditions at even lower levels.
It would cost more – far more – to reduce the nitrate further, Stange said.
Towns around Hastings are also struggling to solve the problem.
Trumbull connected a water main to Hastings. The $480,000 project included a water tower and eight miles of pipes. Hastings and Trumbull each paid for their portion of the pipes.
The United States Department of Agriculture gave the village of Trumbull a loan. The agency noted it would make more economic sense to connect to Hastings instead of paying for Trumbull’s own water treatment plant, Stange recalled.
“Communities our size are going to become more regional water systems,” Stange said. “We think the city of Hastings would really benefit …with the idea that we would be able to supply water along the Highway 281 corridor.”
That’s not an option everywhere. Prosser, 20 miles northwest of Hastings, was too far to connect to the larger city’s water system. Ten years ago, the village first crossed the EPA limit for nitrate. Village leaders hosted town hall meetings and discussed solutions.
The first patch: Providing bottled water to each of the village’s 79 residents.
The newest fix: Installing a reverse osmosis filtration system in each house inside city limits.
The ever-present goal: Trying to avoid the installation of a community-wide treatment system, which can easily run into the millions of dollars.
Nitrate isn’t taken out of water by a normal home filter, like a Brita.
It requires a more complex treatment system, usually either a reverse osmosis or ion exchange. Reverse osmosis, or RO, uses a membrane to separate contaminants like nitrate from drinking water. Ion exchange, often used in industrial settings and for water softening, removes unwanted ions like nitrate. Both are pricey.
In Prosser, an RO treating water at the well would have been a better option, said Michelle Matthews, the village board chair. But Prosser simply couldn’t afford it..
“It’s cost-prohibitive for a small village,” Matthews said.
Instead, Prosser treats the water at the consumers’ tap. Every household in the village is required to have a home reverse osmosis system, which the town owns and maintains.
The village received state funding and took a loan from the United States Department of Agriculture to pay for it.
Laura Grieser, a lifelong Prosser resident, demanded that her two children only drink bottled water or filtered water from their home reverse osmosis system.
A warning message on the back of her water bill reminds her monthly of the danger of drinking water with high nitrate, a problem she first learned about when the city water got bad a decade ago.
It’s an imperfect solution, Prosser leaders and residents say. Residents still use untreated tap water with high nitrate for washing dishes and showering.
The nitrate-laced water still costs residents like Grieser. The town’s base rate water bill nearly doubled, to $52 per month, after the RO systems were installed. That’s no small sum for many village residents who are retired, on social welfare programs or on fixed incomes.
And there’s another problem: It may not work much longer.
Matthews said the community is preparing for a future with even higher nitrate levels.
“When the wells get to like 28 to 30 (parts per million), our RO systems will not bring it down below 10. So, down the road, we’re gonna have to do something different,” she said.
In May, the municipal well tested 17.8 ppm.
In another small town, state regulators demanded a citywide treatment system.
Edgar had 47 nitrate violations since 2010, the highest of all Nebraska public water systems.
The city first set up an account at the local grocery store and paid for the water for pregnant and nursing mothers, and infants under six months.
It then opened a fill station for residents to get clean water.
Even though most of the households have already installed individual reverse osmosis units, the Nebraska Department of Environment and Energy told the village it had to take action.
Edgar built a new line connected to the nearby town of Fairfield in 2022. The project costs $3 million. The city’s share: $981,000, to be paid off over 20 years.
Installing an RO system for the whole municipality is not necessarily the endgame. Look no further than the 30-year-old system in Creighton in northeast Nebraska – the first such filtration system installed in the state for the city of 1,147.
In the span of three decades, the city invested in multimillion capital upgrades to the plant, and now bears an annual operating cost typically more than $500,000. The repairs have also been costly, said Kevin Sonnichsen, Creighton’s Water Commissioner.
In addition, using a reverse osmosis system to treat water is “expensive and wasteful”, says Sonnichsen. When in use, the city’s reverse osmosis plant discharges more than 40,000 gallons of water each day to the creeks — enough to fill two normal-sized swimming pools. That’s about 30% of the source water going to waste.
“Our water rates are a little bit high. But a lot of it is because it costs more to produce water. We have to run it through this system,” Sonnichsen said.
Earlier this year, Gov. Pete Ricketts signed into law a bill that appropriated $4 million in American Rescue Plan Act funding on grants for reverse osmosis systems. Federal infrastructure money is also flowing into the state to improve water quality.
But that funding, while helpful, constitutes only a fraction of the overall need, experts say. And it doesn’t help Nebraskans like Lori Fischer – residents who live outside of towns, and have been grappling with and paying for high nitrate for years.
Fischer described how she learned about high nitrate the hard way: She used to hand-feed her baby pet cockatiels. But the three or four batches of newborn birds would keep dying all summer, she said.
Fischer, who lives north of Shelby, tested her water and discovered nitrate levels were high. She pinpoints two deserted feedlots near her home as the likely culprit.
“I started a business and I had to buy reverse osmosis systems. I’m the one that’s paying the costs. And I shouldn’t have to be the one that pays the costs,” said Fischer in an interview.
Art Tanderup, who farms outside of the northeast Nebraska town of Neligh, has also installed a reverse osmosis system at home. He tried several other filters and water softeners, but RO has worked best so far, he said.
The installation of the system cost him about $1,500 and comes with an annual maintenance fee of about $360.
“It is pricey, but what’s clean water worth, and what’s health worth?” Tanderup said.
Even towns that have thus far provided their residents legally acceptable drinking water are grappling with the future. Take Fairbury in southeast Nebraska, which is surrounded by villages with high nitrate. The city provides water to roughly 5,000 area residents through a partnership with the Little Blue NRD.
But some of Fairbury’s wells have tested above 10 ppm a few times since 2010. Mayor Spencer Brown says he’s argued that the town should be proactive.
The city council proposed drilling new wells, which could cost $10 million. But that’s a giant sum in a 3,500-person town. The council punted the proposal, electing to do more research instead.
“When it gets to a critical level, everything is rushed,” Brown said. “That is the worst-case scenario: You’re backed into the corner.”
Stange — and Hastings — is also trying to avoid being forced into action.
On the blueprint of the Hastings’ water treatment facility, an open area is reserved for another treatment plant in case water quality gets worse.
Stange, 63, says his team is continuing to model predictions for future water quality. He’s hopeful that University of Nebraska researchers continue to help towns like his better understand the problem. He hopes that, when he retires, he can hand his successor a water infrastructure built to last.
But the longtime water manager worries about smaller towns in Nebraska. As populations dwindle, he fears that many will struggle with finding water operators to take over when older operators like him pass the baton.
“We are kind of a little bigger fish in a small fishbowl. What we learn, we’re passing it on to some smaller towns that just don’t have those resources,” he said. “We are all in this together.”
This article was produced as a project for the University of Southern California Annenberg Center for Health Journalism’s 2022 National Fellowship.
[This article was originally published by Flatwater Free Press.]
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