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Concerned about nitrates

July 24, 2018

The Lower Elkhorn Natural Resources District has done an admirable job in fostering public awareness of the seriousness of a nitrate water contamination challenge in Pierce County and northern Madison County.

Now it’s up to agricultural producers in the affected areas and other residents to do their part.

For some, that’s simply a matter of staying informed about the issue and how the Lower Elkhorn district is seeking to improve the situation. For others, it may be adapting to the management and boundary changes being proposed by the NRD in hopes of seeing a decrease in nitrate levels.

But for many — NRD staff and board members undoubtedly hope — it will mean attending an upcoming open house and public hearing so that ideas, suggestions and input can be offered. In that way, the best possible management plan for the situation can be ultimately arrived at and implemented.

Here’s the pertinent background information: Since the Lower Elkhorn NRD’s groundwater management plan was first established in the early 1990s, it has been monitoring the groundwater across their 15 counties for over 40 years. Since then, nitrate levels in some areas have not declined, and other areas are seeing increased levels. That’s what has led to the district coming up with possible changes in its management effort.

Comprehensive sampling of Pierce and Madison County irrigation wells was conducted in both 2015 and 2017, with more than 700 samples collected. The average nitrate concentration of the samples collected was 13 parts per million.

The EPA has said the safe limit is 10 parts per million.

Some communities in Pierce County also have been plagued with high nitrates in their drinking water and have had to invest in new infrastructure or other measures to supply safe, reliable drinking water to their residents.

Nitrates can be particularly harmful to infants under six months of age. Excessively high nitrates can lead to methemoglobinemia, a condition that is commonly known as “blue baby syndrome,” in which there is a reduction in the oxygen-carrying capacity of blood, leading to death.

Agricultural practices involving the use of fertilizer can be a factor in the leaching of nitrates into groundwater supplies over time.

The NRD’s open house and public hearing is set for Thursday, July 26, from 5 to 7 p.m. at its Norfolk office. It’s the kind of meeting that is important to attend.

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