Testing Nitrate And Phosphate Levels In Nebraska Water

Shannon Bartelt, professor of civil engineering, University of Nebraska-Lincoln tests ground water in Nebraska. (Photo courtesy UNL communications)
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September 3, 2019 - 6:45am

A professor in the Civil Engineering Department at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln is launching a citizen science project to test nitrate and phosphate levels in the Cornhusker state.


Brandon McDermott, NET News: Walk us through this testing, where can a farmer or rancher do this with a busy schedule?

Shannon Bartelt-Hunt, department chair and professor of civil engineering, University of Nebraska-Lincoln: Absolutely. This testing program is really simple. You can sign up to receive a test on our website, which is go.unl.edu/wqcs, you'll receive a testing package in the mail. We're actually in the middle of our testing cycle right now. So you'll receive your testing package almost immediately. The tests themselves take about 90 seconds to complete. So you'll get your information very quickly after you do your test.

190 Nebraskans participated in 20 counties in 2018, Shannon Bartelt says that number had grown to more than 800 in 2019. (Photo courtesy UNL communications)

McDermott: Are folks more interested when hearing how simple the tests are and how quickly the results are shown?

Bartelt-Hunt: I think so. We've had a lot of participants who have been repeated testers for us. I think that shows that it doesn't take a lot of time out of their schedule in order to help collect information about their water quality.

McDermott: What originally spurred the interest in starting these tests?

Bartelt-Hunt: I'm an environmental engineer and focused on the quality of our environment. What really started this was just an interest in understanding a little bit more about nutrient contamination in Nebraska, potentially trying to identify some ways that we could influence that.

McDermott: For folks who may not be aware of nitrates or phosphates in water, how nasty are those for you?

Bartelt-Hunt: Well, nitrate does have some health consequences. So the drinking water standard is 10 milligrams per liter. Phosphate doesn't have a health based drinking water standard, but it can lead to eutrophication, and growth of algae in lakes and ponds, which is not pleasant, and also can consume the oxygen and affect fish. So there's both health impacts of nutrients as well as some environmental quality impacts.

McDermott: The focus was originally in eastern Nebraska, but now you've expanded to cover the entire state. Is there a worry there may be other issues elsewhere in the state?

Bartelt-Hunt: Um, no, it was really just from interest of we've had a lot of interest in the program and a lot of people outside our original area interested in testing. We realized that once we had the program established in 2018, that it's really simple to administer. And we felt comfortable that we could, you know, serve a greater population.

Shannon Bartelt, professor of civil engineering, University of Nebraska-Lincoln says testing of ground water in Nebraska is a fast, easy process. (Photo courtesy UNL communications)

McDermott: How did flooding affect this testing this year? When it comes to both of the importance of doing this testing and also interest in taking part?

Bartelt-Hunt: Yeah, so it definitely affected our interest. We had a lot of people sign up to test their water quality after the flood, which is great. We were really thrilled that we could have this testing program in place for that. We added a question on our survey about whether people's wells were flooded in 2019. And so we don't yet have all of our data back yet, but that's something that we're really interested in trying to understand if wells that were impacted by the flood have higher nutrient levels.

McDermott: What have you found this far results wise other hot spots for nitrates and phosphates in groundwater?

Bartelt-Hunt: Yeah, so we I'd say, we found that there certainly are elevated nitrates in our groundwater, which is not a surprise, we've known that we have nitrate contamination issues in Nebraska, we saw the number of samples that exceeded that 10 parts per million or 10 milligram per liter standard, ranging anywhere from 15% to almost 40% of our samples, depending on the time of year that we tested. And that was kind of spread throughout our testing area. So there weren't any particular areas that were higher than others.

McDermott: Just taking a look at this file you gave me 190 Nebraska citizens participated in 20 counties in 2018. I assume that's much more this year.

Bartelt-Hunt: Yeah. So we've had great, a great response for our spring testing window in 2019. I think we sent out about 800 test kits across the state. And then we're in the middle of another testing period right now with the same or greater number of kits out. So that just shows the interest in the program. We'd like people to test well water quality, also surface water quality, near where you live, or in an area that you might be interested in learning more about the water quality. And so really, anyone can participate in this program. We provide some training information on our website, and we think this is a great program to let people get more information about their environment.

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