Journalism and Mass Communications, College of


Nitrates in Nebraska: A Multimedia Journalism Project on the Impact of Nitrate Contamination in the Groundwater

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Copyright 2019 Jessica Fargen Walsh


Nebraska’s multi-billion-dollar farm economy depends on groundwater and thankfully, the state has plenty of it for now. But that farming success has come at a cost: The fertilizer used to make those crops grow is also contaminating Nebraska’s groundwater, the drinking water source for most of the state.

It’s a problem that is quietly costing the state and federal government millions of dollars and changing the way rural residents get water and how much they pay. Health researchers believe nitrate contamination in drinking water could be one cause of Nebraska’s higher than average pediatric cancer rate. Nebraska has the seventh-highest pediatric cancer rate in the country and the highest in the Midwest.

This multimedia website explores the history of this decades-old problem, how it is impacting Nebraskans and what’s being done about it — from a corn and soybean field in McLean to a daycare in Edgar to a water treatment plant in Creighton.

For decades, Nebraska farmers over-applied nitrogen fertilizer, which seeped into the soil, drained into surface water and leached into the groundwater, the source of drinking water for 85% of the state. Nebraska sits atop the plentiful Ogallala Aquifer, a fluid body of water with a water table that is hundreds of feet deep in some parts of the state and bubbling up into streams in another.

Much of the attention on Nebraska water has been the sustainability of the Ogallala Aquifer, but more and more Nebraskans are now worrying not only about quantity, but quality.