Nitrate levels in Nebraska drinking water pose growing health concern

Dr. Dan Snow, with the Nebraska Water Center, stands in a lab where he and researchers trace...
Dr. Dan Snow, with the Nebraska Water Center, stands in a lab where he and researchers trace where nitrate in water samples comes from.(KOLN)
Published: Jan. 26, 2023 at 5:27 PM CST
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LINCOLN, Neb. (KOLN) - Nebraskans use water every day. To drink, cook, shower, clean, to survive. But experts are concerned about how much nitrate is in our drinking water. It’s a chemical you can’t see, smell or taste but may cause cancer.

“When you ingest them they can then in your stomach react with proteins and form something called nitrosamines and those are cancer causing agents,” Dr. Eleanor Rogan, with UNMC said.

This issue has been brought to the forefront by journalists at the Flatwater Free Press, in their investigation titled “Our Dirty Water.” They’ve uncovered groundwater data showing around 6,000 wells across the state, largely concentrated in Eastern Nebraska, showing levels of nitrate higher than the EPA drinking water standard. They also report the median level of nitrate in water has doubled since 1978.

Rogan said her team of researchers have also been studying groundwater and watershed data, looking to see if there’s a pattern between diagnoses of pediatric cancer and tests showing high nitrate levels.

“We didn’t find a perfect match,” Rogan said. “But we did find that there were indeed areas that did have both high levels of nitrates in the water and high incidence of pediatric cancer.”

Rogan said their research is ongoing and they can’t make any definitive statements yet, but she said the concerns are high enough that it should raise questions about the use of nitrate based fertilizers in the state.

Dr. Dan Snow with the Nebraska Water Center based at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln has access to one of the few machines in the country that can take a water sample with nitrate in it and figure out where the nitrate came from. He said most of the samples he gets from Nebraska come from commercial fertilizers which use nitrates as a plant nutrient.

“We’re always trying to grow more yield, have more bushels per acre. And consequently, we use as much fertilizer as possible to maximize your yield,” Snow said. “In the past, we didn’t think too much about the potential consequences to contaminate water supplies. But that’s become a much more pressing issue, I think over the past decade.”

Reporting done by the Flatwater Free Press shows there have been calls to regulate how much manure or fertilizer can be used, but current regulations allow only for education. This leaves all mitigation efforts up to farmers, homeowners or cities themselves, which are required to test and keep nitrate levels under the EPA standard.

The Flatwater Free Press is looking into claims that when nitrate levels have been high, for example in feedlots which the Nebraska Department of Environment and Energy does oversee, they don’t act quickly or sometimes at all. They’re now investigating allegations that employees at NDEE have turned a blind eye to high nitrate levels and requested emails between staff discussing the issue.

NDEE didn’t deny the request, but wants to charge the Flatwater Free Press $44,000 to have staff themselves sort through emails to turn over. The Nebraska Journalism Trust is now suing NDEE, on Flatwater Free Press’s behalf over the price of those records. They’ll go to court over this next week.

The Flatwater Free Press has done extensive reporting on this issue. You can find all of their stories at