YORK – Farm families and rural communities in southern Nebraska have been wrestling for decades with the problem of elevated groundwater nitrate concentrations.
The federal government long has held that 10 parts per million is the concentration level beyond which steps are needed to protect human health. Infants are most notably at risk. Rising nitrate levels can make it hard for a small town to site and maintain useable public wells.
From that standpoint, it’s easy to see why Nebraska’s natural resources districts are looking at the groundwater nitrate issue constantly. It’s part of their mission to protect the state’s underground water resources from contamination and protect the safety of public drinking water supplies.
But speakers at a public hearing of the Upper Big Blue NRD board of directors in York on Monday said that in their view, the district must take care not to financially burden its farmers with rules to the point where families leave the land and small towns lose viability.
UBBNRD patrons turned out to comment on proposed amendments to Rule 5 within the district’s groundwater management area rules and regulations for water quality — amendments that would require extensive use of nitrification inhibitors and curtail the amount of pre-plant nitrogen many constituents could apply to their fields.
The proposal calls for farmers districtwide to apply an approved nitrification inhibitor along with any anhydrous ammonia injected into their fields for spring-planted crops prior to March 1. Inhibitors also would be required to go along with applications of any other form of nitrogen fertilizer prior to planting.
A nitrification inhibitor is a compound that slows the conversion of nitrogen fertilizer into nitrates that can leach down through the soil and toward the groundwater table.
In addition, farmers in Level 2 and Level 3 groundwater quality management zones would be limited to applying no more than 120 pounds of nitrogen per acre to their fields prior to planting. Additional nitrogen could be applied once the crop was in the ground. The farmers would have to inform the NRD each year of their plans to fertilizer applications and how those plans square with “best management practices.”
Much of the UBBNRD within Tribland is designated as Level 2 — meaning it lies within areas where the median groundwater nitrate concentration recorded in monitoring wells is at least 7 parts per million. According to charts on display at Monday’s event, monitoring wells in the zone that includes the Hastings area have a median reading of 7.3 ppm and 23 percent test above 10 ppm.
Roughly 300 people turned out for Monday evening’s event at the Holthus Convention Center in York. The consensus among those testifying at the microphone was that the proposed rule changes would cost farmers and rural communities big money without providing any known benefit for the quality of the drinking water supply available today.
“I ask that you do an economic study of what you’re thinking about doing,” said John Romohr, a Waco area farmer who predicted that if the requirement for nitrification inhibitors were to be enacted as proposed, just paying for the product itself would cost the district’s farmers a combined total of $23.24 million per year.
The additional burden would be hard to bear at a time when many farming operations are struggling to stay afloat, squeezed as they are by high production costs, high taxes and lackluster market prices.
“I know we cannot stand a $23 million drain on the Upper Big Blue people,” Romohr said.
Wade Walters, a Shickley area farmer who came back to the community five years ago after finishing college, said the proposed rule changes could cost his operation as much money as the modest salary he pays himself each year to maintain his household.
“If you guys are sitting here looking to put a young farmer out of business, this is one way you could do it with the stroke of a pen,” he said.
The Upper Big Blue district, based in York, encompasses all of York County, almost all of Hamilton County, northeastern Adams County, northern Clay and Fillmore counties, and parts of Saline, Seward, Butler and Polk counties. The district has nearly 1.23 million certified irrigated acres.
Monday’s event included an informational open house where patrons could visit with NRD staff and board members and representatives of other agencies about the existing groundwater nitrate problem and proposed remedies. Patrons then were invited to submit written or oral testimony in a separate room.
On Aug. 15, however, a large contingent of district farmers attended the regular August meeting of the UBBNRD board and asked that Monday’s agenda also include a time for witnesses to state their feelings at a microphone for all to hear. The board complied.
Around 15 witnesses stepped forward to speak during the public testimony session on Monday, questioning how the district developed its proposed changes to Rule 5 in its groundwater management area regulations related to water quality, and what basis the district has to expect the more stringent proposed regulations will make the groundwater nitrate situation any better.
As had been announced ahead of time, board members listening to the testimony were unable to respond or answer the questions that were posed. Those questions can be addressed at a follow-up meeting on Sept. 10.
Some speakers on Monday said that with such tight margins in farming today, producers can’t afford to over-fertilize and will hold themselves in check for that reason, so additional regulations are an unnecessary burden.
“The biggest regulation we have is the high price of fertilizer,” said Greg Boehr, a York area farmer, noting that global positioning technology helps farmers achieve a high level of precision in their fertilizer applications nowadays.
“We know where every single pound of nitrogen is going in our field,” Boehr said.
Andy Peard, a fifth-generation family farmer from Phillips, said economics and education will drive any necessary change in the agricultural community to protect natural resources while also looking out for the future of the farming operations themselves.
“Not every time there’s a problem does the government need to make regulations,” Peard said.
Dan Baumert, who farms near Saronville, agreed with other speakers that farmers today are good stewards of the land and simply can’t afford to overapply nitrogen to their fields no matter what NRD rules say.
He said he was disturbed to have inquired about the proposed rule changes during Monday’s open house and to have received different answers from different personnel when he asked them the same questions.
To his mind, the proposed rule changes go too far, and too quickly.
“It seems like we’re at Point A and the regulations jump to Point Z,” Baumert said.
State Sen. Curt Friesen, a Henderson area farmer and former UBBNRD board member, said district board members long have understood that because the nitrate leaching process is slow, any nitrogen fertilizer restrictions they impose will take many years to improve groundwater sample readings.
“We all knew the nitrates were going to go up,” Friesen said of deliberations that took place in the past. “My question was always, ‘are we still contributing to the problem?’”
As Friesen sees it, the proposed regulations now being considered will hurt farmers’ bottom line and could disrupt conservation steps they already are taking in their own operations.
“I don’t think what you’re proposing is going to help the problem,” he said. “I appreciate what you guys are trying to do. We all want clean water and clean air.”
Boehr, from the York area, said he’s upset by the idea farmers need the government to regulate them into being responsible with their natural resources or their finances.
“This land is part of us,” he said. “We know our farms like the back of our hand, and no one is more concerned about our land and our water than ourselves. I see absolutely no reason for this regulation. The price of nitrogen is already the factor.”
No one testified at the microphone Monday in favor of the proposed rule changes. Rodney Grotz, a young producer from York, asked everyone in the room who was against the proposal to stand. Most people in the audience then stood and cheered.
Grotz implored the NRD board to proceed cautiously, given the high stakes involved in any rule change.
“You truly hold my livelihood in your hands,” he said. “It truly means the world to me, your decision on this rule.”
For three days in August, Julie Ochsner and Twila Bankson turn into cowboy cooks.
During the Oregon Trail Rodeo in Hastings, the rural Adams County women cook for several hundred people, providing meals for volunteers for the pro rodeo and the cowboys and cowgirls who compete at it.
And these meals aren’t instant.
The two women, both members of the Adams County Agricultural Society, make home-cooked meals, and have been doing it for years: Ochsner, for 15, and Bankson, for the last eight years.
The women plan year-round, watching for sales so they can stay within a budget and checking out recipes that might work for large crowds.
“It’s in my mind, year-round,” Bankson said, “when I see recipes, I think we should try this.”
In addition to sales, the women use the bounty from their own gardens and donations from others.
Bankson has chickens, so if eggs are plentiful, she donates them for deviled eggs, which are always a big hit, she said. She plants her garden so it is at its peak in late August, and the cucumbers, tomatoes, and other vegetables are fresh.
During each night of rodeo, which this year is Aug. 23-25, the women cook for the rodeo volunteers and the cowboy and cowgirl competitors.
On Sunday, the rodeo hosts a free barbecue for all ticket holders, and Ochsner and Bankson cook and shred the pork and prepare the sides for the barbecue.
Ochsner estimates they feed between 850 and 1,000 volunteers each year. They also volunteer to cook at the state high school finals rodeo, held at the fairgrounds in June.
They make meals that cowboys and cowgirls don’t normally get when they’re on the road. Beef and noodles with mashed potatoes are a favorite, as is the roast beef sandwich.
Other favorites are cheesy potatoes, cheeseburger casserole, spaghetti bake, green beans, ham, and watermelon.
“We try to get as home-cooked as we can,” Ochsner said. “These cowboys are on the road all the time and they don’t get home-cooked meals.”
The hours are long, but it’s worth it, Ochsner said, when people thank her and Bankson.
“It’s the gratitude we see in the eyes of the people we are serving food to,” Ochsner said.
And it’s a way to show appreciation to the volunteers who help out, Ochsner said.
“I feel like we need to treat our volunteers to the home-cooked meals because they put in a lot of work and effort. Why not do it?”
This year’s rodeo starts at 7 p.m. on Aug. 23-24 and at 5 p.m. Aug. 25 at the fairgrounds.
The Adams County property tax levy looks to increase by about 10 percent for the 2019-20 fiscal year.
The team of county officials who prepared the budget: Highway Superintendent Dawn Miller, Zoning Administrator Judy Mignery and Information Technology Coordinator Ron Kucera presented the proposed budget during the Adams County Board of Supervisors meeting Tuesday.
The proposed tax levy is .295760, which is an increase from .269141 last year.
That means for property valued at $100,000, the owner would pay $295.76 in property tax to support Adams County compared to $269.14 last year.
Those figures are the rural rate that includes the county’s payment to the city of Hastings for an interlocal agreement that was established in August 2016 for operation of the Hastings Public Library.
Adams County is to transfer all property taxes from the area in Adams County outside the city of Hastings from the Adams County library levy commencing fiscal year 2016-17 to the city.
The amount was to be not less than $167,732 and provided for an inflationary factor of not more than 3.5 percent for each fiscal year thereafter.
The city is to use the funds from the county to provide all regular library services to all residents of the county outside the city, including the Bookmobile at no charge to the county residents.
City residents pay less property taxes to the county because the library is supported by the city’s general fund. County residents pay slightly higher taxes to the county from the Adams County library levy, which doesn’t apply to residents of the city.
The net effect is the city gets money from the county as per the interlocal agreement and uses it supplemented by the general fund to operate the library and bookmobile for both city and county residents.
The county’s total property tax requirement is $11.359 million.
Miller said her team and members of the county board’s budget committee originally started with a 33-cent levy.
“We went back and adjustments were made,” she said.
County departments continued to make cuts, getting the levy to its proposed amount of .295760.
There are no bonds levied in 2019-2020. The supervisors voted 6-0 to approve during Tuesday’s meeting early pay off of bonds for the northeast truck route in a final payment of $517,003, which will save the county $1,600 in interest. That payment was not due until Dec. 15.
Supervisor Scott Thomsen was absent.
The .295760 levy also does not include funding for political subdivisions including townships, rural fire districts and the Agricultural Society, which collectively must keep their asking under 15 cents.
The county is looking to transfer $1.5 million from its inheritance fund to the general fund for operations.
Adams County typically transfers $1 million each year.
Last year it transferred $1.5 million to cover the purchase of the former Wallace Elementary, which is now home to the Adams COunty extension office.
The estimate for the next year is to receive $800,000 back into the inheritance fund.
Next year during budget season anticipate inheritance fund to be $2.392 million.
“The budget committee said they do not want that going under $2 million,” Miller said.
The Ag Society requested $694,307, but will receive $685,000. The county is keeping the Ag Society’s levy very similar — .017835 compared to .017839 for the current fiscal year.
The Ag Society received $677,373 for the current fiscal year.
County departments averaged a 2.5 percent increase for salaries, but operational budgets remained close to consistent with the previous fiscal year.
Health insurance costs will also increase by about $400,000.
“I can see from this budget, we’re starting to get into trouble with the reduction in farm valuation,” Supervisor Dale Curtis said.
He said the county has benefited from the use of its inheritance fund.
“It’s serious now,” Curtis said.
County board members unanimously approved scheduling the public hearing to approve the 2019-20 county budget for 10 a.m. Sept. 3, in advance of the state deadline of Sept. 20 for submission.
In other business, the supervisors:
Unanimously approved the placement of yield signs on the east and west sides of the intersection at 70th Road and Winchester Avenue.