Upper Big Blue Considers Fertilizer Application Changes

Public Hearing
Upper Big Blue NRD
March 1, 2012
1:30 pm
York City Auditorium
612 Nebraska Ave.

High nitrate levels in groundwater is a problem for many Nebraska communities, and the cause can sometimes stem from nitrogen fertilizer used on farms.

The Upper Big Blue Natural Resources District is looking at some rule changes they say would help lower nitrate levels and be a benefit to ag producers.

"We need to get a handle on it," said Rod DeBuhr, Water Department Manager for Upper Big Blue. "The best way to do that is for producers to apply their nitrogen as close to when the crop needs it as possible."

To make that happen the Upper Big Blue wants to encourage farmers to fertilize more after the plant has emerged, or use nitrification inhibitors.

"If we apply it close to when the crop needs it by split applying or using a nitrification inhibitor which holds it in ammonia form longer, then there's less opportunity for leaching and more opportunity for the crop to take advantage of it," said DeBuhr.

The rule would be that fall applications or pre-plant spring applications would have to use nitrification inhibitors. Split spring applications would have to use less than 150 lbs pre-plant if not using an inhibitor.

At 1.2 million irrigated acres, the Upper Big Blue contains one eighth of Nebraska's total irrigated acres, so officials say these rule changes should have a significant impact on many communities that are having to drill new wells or build and fund treatment systems from nitrate contamination.

"If you put that fertilizer on too soon, either in the fall or even in the spring, if you put it on all at once too early, you can lose a lot of fertilizer," said Milt Moravek, Projects Director and Assistant Manager of the neighboring Central Platte Natural Resources District. "It goes below the root zone and then the roots never catch up with it, and guess what, it ends up in the water table."

The Central Platte NRD has already had rules about nitrogen fertilizer on sandy soils in place for over 20 years.

The federal government says high nitrate levels are a health risk, and mandates drinking water should contain less than 10 parts per million.

"We had a half million acres that had nitrates approaching 20 parts per million, now those acres are down in the 15 parts/million range," said Moravek. "They're still not to down to 10, but we're getting there."

Reversing contamination can take decades, but both districts say it's important to get started as more and more acres are irrigated and fertilized.

The Upper Big Blue is planning a public hearing on these rule changes on March 1 at 1:30 pm at the York City Auditorium (612 Nebraska Ave.).

"Nothing that we're proposing is a negative impact on agriculture," said DeBuhr. "These management practices, if they're used properly, should be an advantage to the producer's bottom line."

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