Protecting Groundwater Quality a Priority for NRDs

Protecting Groundwater Quality a Priority for NRDs


LINCOLN, Nebraska – Since their inception in 1972, Nebraska’s Natural Resources Districts (NRDs) have been monitoring groundwater quality to protect lives, property and the future.

Approximately 85 percent of Nebraskans rely on groundwater as their drinking water source and it is the primary irrigation source for agriculture, Nebraska’s No. 1 industry. NRDs have been developing groundwater quality plans since the 1980s, which are an essential part of protecting Nebraska’s most precious resource.

Groundwater quality issues are often multi-faceted with no-one-size-fits-all solution, as highlighted in the following NRD programs.

Bazile Groundwater Management Area – Lewis & Clark, Lower Elkhorn, Lower Niobrara and Upper Elkhorn NRDs

The Bazile Groundwater Management Area (BGMA) brings together ag producers, four NRDs, the Nebraska Department of Environment and Energy, the Natural Resources Conservation Service, the Nebraska Environmental Trust and Nebraska Extension to address rising nitrate levels in communities and domestic wells in northeast Nebraska.

The nitrate contamination goes beyond individual NRD borders and includes parts of three counties – Antelope, Knox and Pierce. Sandy soils, shallow depth to groundwater and extensive application of nitrogen fertilizer and irrigation water make the BGMA aquifer particularly vulnerable to nitrate contamination.

Agriculture producers in the BGMA work to reduce nonpoint source groundwater contamination through the adoption of best management practices (BMPs), which could include nitrogen inhibitors, soil sampling, water sampling, limits on fall fertilizer application, variable-rate applicators, center pivot irrigation, chemigation, flow meters, cover crops, moisture sensors, split feeding fertilizer, and factoring in the nitrogen present in the irrigation water when deciding fertilizer application.

“Nonpoint source pollution is difficult to address, because the source of the problem is from a widespread area,” said Terry Julesgard, Lower Niobrara NRD general manager. “The success of the program relies on producers voluntarily utilizing the various tools and actively making changes to reduce contamination and improve groundwater quality.”

This voluntary, collaborative approach allows BGMA partners to leverage U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Clean Water Act funding and make a stronger case for receiving federal funding to collectively address the problem in the larger aquifer. The BGMA Plan was the first federally recognized groundwater-focused plan to address nonpoint source pollution in the nation.

Hastings Wellhead Protection Area – Little Blue and Upper Big Blue NRDs

A Wellhead Protection Area has public drinking water wells, which require special attention to prevent contamination. Through regular water testing, the City of Hastings found that several of their wells were above the allowable limit for nitrate contamination.

Since Hastings is split between two NRDs – Little Blue and Upper Big Blue – and because nonpoint source nitrate pollution is primarily from surrounding agricultural activity, the city coordinated with the districts. NRDs have regulatory authority and the necessary flexibility to develop the collaborative programming to help protect Hastings’ drinking water.

The Hastings Wellhead Protection Area program uses educational programming and producer incentives to reduce contamination. Cost-share programs include irrigation management, soil sampling, septic tank and leach field abandonment, and well abandonment.

“This project bridges the rural-urban divide to address nonpoint source nitrate pollution,” said David Eigenberg, Upper Big Blue NRD general manager. “Understanding the sources of contamination and preventing additional contamination is key. This partnership will require long-term cooperative efforts between producers and NRDs to slow nitrate losses to protect drinking water.”

Rain-Ready Landscapes Program – Lower Platte South NRD

Groundwater contamination is not just a rural issue. Due to stormwater runoff, many pollutants typical in urban areas can be found in local waterways. Lower Platte South NRD offers cost share to homeowners, who participate in the Rain-Ready Landscapes Program in Lincoln and throughout the district.

The goal of this program is to improve water quality, reduce runoff, and facilitate infiltration by preventing water from leaving properties and entering storm drains. By installing landscaping projects like rain gardens or bioswales, waterwise lawns, and pavement removal, rainwater is slowed and captured to allow infiltration.

In addition to protecting water quality, rainscapes are more sustainable than traditional landscaping because they utilize native plants, which require less water and fewer pesticides. 

Addressing groundwater quality issues requires regular data collection and recognizing and planning for changing conditions. Nebraska’s Natural Resources Districts’ regulatory and taxing authorities allow NRDs to develop locally based incentive and educational programming and to enforce regulations when needed to protect Nebraska’s groundwater today and into the future.

Throughout 2022, the NRDs will commemorate breakthroughs and achievements in conservation. To join in the celebration and follow the Natural Resources Districts’ special activities throughout 2022, visit and follow #Since1972 on social media.