Nitrate in Nebraska

Nitrate

What is Nitrate and where does it come from?

By Crystal Powers and Katie Pekarek

Nitrogen is a valuable fertilizer source that keeps Nebraska growing abundant landscapes and crops. Nitrogen that does not get used by the crop ends up in our streams, lakes and groundwater. Nitrate is the most common form of nitrogen found in water.

Impacts (Health, Economic, and Recreation)

Nitrate in Nebraska waters has economic, recreation, and health impacts for all of our citizens.

  • Farmers recognize the economic and opportunity loss of nitrogen that is not utilized for growing crops.
  • Millions of tax dollars are managed by Natural Resources Districts, Cities, and conservation agencies to prevent and treat nitrate contamination of water annually.
  • Nearly 1 in 5 Public Water Supplies and private wells in Nebraska consitantly tests high for nitrate-nitrogen.  This number is growing. (NDEE Groundwater Report, Risk and Cost Assessment of Nitrate Contamination in domestic wells).
  • Nitrate is a significant contributor to the presence of Harmful Algal Blooms (HABs). Public beaches in Nebraska are monitored for HABs and closed if the level gets to high.  
  • Long term exposure of high nitrate levels can harm fish and their habitats as the result of excessive aquatic plant growth, modified pH, and lowered dissolved oxygen levels.
  • Research has long shown that nitrate exposure is a hazard for infants.  Emerging research has shown there is a statistically significant lifetime risk of negative birth outcomes, thyroid disease, and certain cancers (Reference). The drinking water standard for nitrate in water is 10 mg/L.

Nebraska Nitrate Working Groups - Summary and Call for Action

An aerial view of pivot circles
Collaborating organizations
Aubudon Nebraska
Aubudon Nebraska
Central Platte Natural Resources District

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Dietary Strategies to Reduce Nitrogen and Phosphorus Excretion in Feedlot Cattle

Cows at Feeding Station
Dietary nutrients, specifically nitrogen and phosphorus, are excreted in manure from feedlot cattle. Dietary strategies, including calculated protein supplementation and phase-feeding programs, can be implemented by cattle feeders to decrease nutrient excretion and improve nutritional efficiency of the animal.

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Small communities pay high costs for clean water

main street and water tower
In Nebraska, 85% of our citizens rely on drinking water pumped from the ground. When a community's public drinking water supply is affected by high nitrate levels that exceed 10 ppm, it can cost hundreds of thousands - even millions - of dollars to fix.

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Nitrate in Drinking Water

A water bottle being filled at a sink faucet

Historical and current water quality monitoring shows that nitrate is present in groundwater throughout much of Nebraska. It is when results are at or above the 10mg/L Maximum Contaminant Level (MCL) that hazardous health effects become a concern among humans and animals. Nitrate is colorless, odorless, and tasteless and the only way it can be detected in drinking water is through submitting a sample for laboratory testing. 

Where Does Nitrate Come From and What is Nitrification?

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