Flatwater Free Press examines nitrate contamination costs to public water users
A Flatwater Free Press article by Yanqi Xu highlights the high cost to water users when their city wells test high for nitrates.
Article: "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."
Yanqi Xu reports that 10 percent of Nebraska’s 598 communities have tested for nitrates above EPA standards. Hastings has paid over $45 million to treat their wells.
Additional treatment facilities at McCook, Seward, Hastings, Pender and Creighton combined for capital costs of $34 million.
For towns of less than 500 residents, annual maintenance costs could be as high as $650 per person, according to a University of Nebraska study. The town of Edgar had 47 nitrate violations since 2010.
Here is the Flatwater Free Press article:
Our Dirty Water
Clean Water doesn’t come cheap: Nebraska towns are shelling out millions to treat nitrate-laced drinking water
By Yanqi Xu
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.
Public water systems exceeded EPA limits
Dozens of community water systems have tested at nitrate levels above the limit allowed by the Environmental Protection Agency since 2010, a Flatwater Free Press analysis of records from the Nebraska Department of Energy and Environment found. The size of the dots indicate the highest nitrate level recorded during that time. Click a dot for more details.
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.
Marty Stange, Hastings Environmental Director, keeps an close eye on the city’s water’s nitrate level. The city’s water treatment facility utilizes a reverse osmosis system to lower nitrate in the water it supplies to the residents. Photo by Jazari Kual for the Flatwater Free Press
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.
Thirty-seven dwellings in Prosser, Neb., including the village hall (shown), are outfitted with RO filters to reduce nitrates in drinking water. Water comes in through the existing line and is filtered into the far right cylinder, then through the reverse osmosis membrane (center) before reaching a sediment filter in on the left. The water also goes through an activated carbon filter to help with the taste. Two gallons of filtered water can be stored in a pressurized tank (front). Each system costs about $350. Photo by Laura Beahm for the Flatwater Free Press
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.