Friday, October 28, 2016

BLOG: First Groundwater Focused Plan to Address Nonpoint Pollution

by Sam Radford, Wellhead Protection Program Coordinator and Laura JohnsonIntegrated Report and TMDL Coordinator, Nebraska Department of Environmental Quality

The spotlight is on Nebraska as the EPA recently approved the Bazile Groundwater Management Area (BGMA) Plan. The BGMA Plan is the first groundwater focused plan in the nation to address nonpoint source pollution. The plan is the result of a collaborative effort to reduce groundwater nitrate contamination between the Nebraska Department of Environmental Quality (NDEQ) and four of Nebraska’s Natural Resources Districts (NRDs): Lewis and Clark, Lower Elkhorn, Lower Niobrara, and the Upper Elkhorn. The approval of this plan provides NRDs, Communities, and other Public Water Systems (PWS) an innovative framework to build upon, and new funding sources to protect the BGMA Wellhead Protection (WHP) Areas, as well as WHP Areas across the state.

Figure 1
The BGMA covers 756 square miles in northeast Nebraska and is home to 10 communities and over 7,000 residents (see Figure 1). Groundwater in the BGMA is the only drinking water source for communities and rural residents. Extensive row crop and sandy soils have allowed nitrate from land applied manure and commercial fertilizer to leach into the groundwater. The NRDs have collected data on groundwater nitrate concentrations since 1980. During that time, average nitrate concentrations have increased with some areas exceeding 30 mg/L, three times the levels safe for drinking water.

The plan focuses on reducing groundwater nitrate levels below 10 mg/L by progressively adopting more protective Best Management Practices (BMPs) throughout the BGMA. Community Wellhead Protection Areas are listed as the highest project funding priority. The NRDs will utilize a combination of agricultural BMPs required by elevated Groundwater Management plan phases, and voluntary BMPs outlined in the BGMA plan that go above and beyond phase requirements. Through the development of the BGMA Plan, the NRDs have created a cohesive strategy to monitor nitrate reductions in groundwater as fertilizer practices and irrigation methods are improved in the area. This monitoring data will also further refine future versions of the BGMA plan to ensure its goals are achieved.

To truly understand the significance of this plan, one must understand the history of water laws in Nebraska as well as at the federal level. In the past, groundwater and surface water were thought to be two separate water sources and were therefore regulated by separate water laws. At the federal level, the Clean Water Act (CWA) of 1972 charged the US EPA to regulate point source pollution to surface water. While the CWA began to successfully reduce point source contamination, it failed to effectively address nonpoint source contamination. In 1987, the CWA was amended, and the Section 319 Nonpoint Source Management Program was established to improve federal leadership and support, and focus local efforts on voluntarily reducing nonpoint source contamination (EPA 2016). Even with the 1987 amendment, the CWA act did not directly speak to groundwater, leaving management of groundwater resources to the states. Nebraska has been managing and regulating groundwater resources through the NRDs since the mid ‘70s. However, the hydrologic connection between surface and groundwater wasn’t legally recognized until 1996.This acknowledgement has led Nebraska to collaborative efforts that address nonpoint source contamination from a different perspective than what is generally found at the federal level.

The BGMA plan is the first EPA approved plan in the nation to address nonpoint source groundwater quality problems using the Clean Water Act. This is a milestone for communities who have struggled to obtain funding for projects that seek to educate and inform residents and local producers; and implement BMPs targeted at reducing nonpoint source groundwater pollution in their Wellhead Protection Areas. Until now, CWA Section 319 funding was only used on projects that address impairments in surface water or in areas that were listed as priority areas in a NRD’s watershed management plan. While more and more WHP areas are being targeted in watershed management plans, the BGMA plan is the first to address it from the standpoint of groundwater and to make WHP areas a priority for project funding.

Nebraska is unique in that approximately 88% of the state’s residents, and nearly all rural residents, primary source of drinking water comes from groundwater (NDEQ 2015). The geology, hydrology, and depth to groundwater determine how susceptible groundwater aquifers are to contamination. For example, sandy soils, little or no protective surface layers (i.e. clay or glacial till), and/or high groundwater tables leave drinking water aquifers especially vulnerable to point and nonpoint source contamination. The rate of groundwater movement ranges from inches per year(s) to inches per decade(s) compared to surface water which moves inches per day(s) to week(s) to enter surface waterbodies.

Table 1
Nonpoint source groundwater nitrate contamination is one of the most prevalent nonpoint source contaminants in Nebraska. It puts a heavy financial burden on communities and their Public Water Systems, as the only way to remove nitrate from drinking water is through treatment. In the last 20 years, five PWS and landowners with private wells in the BGMA have spent over $9 million dollars on treatment (see Table 1). This amount includes the cost of facility operations and maintenance (O&M) and point of use (POU) treatment systems for domestic well owners. Ultimately, the cost of treatment and O&M falls on the 4,201 residents that reside in the five affected communities and land owners in the surrounding area. In the future, the cost of treatment will only increase if the source of contamination is not addressed (NDEQ 2016). Nitrate contamination is prevalent throughout Nebraska and many other communities are dealing with the same problems as those in the BGMA (see Figure 2). This is just one example of why the work that has been done and will continue to be done in the BGMA is so important. Hopefully, the plan will pave the way for many other NRDs and communities to better respond to and manage nonpoint source contamination, especially in WHP areas.
Figure 2

The approval of the BGMA plan by the EPA has provided an entirely new source of funding that wasn’t previously available for groundwater and drinking water protection efforts. Since the creation of Nebraska’s voluntary Wellhead Protection Program, communities and PWS across the state have had the ability to create WHP protection plans to protect their drinking water sources. These plans identify possible sources of contamination in the WHP area and lay out management strategies to address sources of contaminants. The ultimate goal is to implement on-the-ground activities such as BMPs and education and outreach programs. More often than not this goal falls short as no direct funding is available to communities. Many communities do not have the time, support, education, or money needed to develop and implement effective WHP plans. Until now, the only financial assistance NDEQ has been able to give communities who wish to protect their drinking water sources are Source Water Protection (SWP) Grants. The grant program distributes up to $100,000 a year, which generally isn’t enough to fund multiple larger more involved projects. The SWP Grant has been limited in its ability to support long-term efforts to reduce nonpoint source contamination. The NDEQ is hopeful that communities will be able to better protect their drinking water sources through CWA Section 319 funding.

The BGMA plan approval by the EPA has also led to new activities for the SWP Grant to fund. As stated previously, the BGMA plan is the first in the nation to focus on ground water instead of surface water. Because most Nebraska communities use groundwater as a source for their drinking water, those communities were not included in earlier watershed management plans nor were they eligible for funding on their own. In response to the EPA approval of the BGWMA plan, the NDEQ is working with communities and the EPA to develop Drinking Water Protection Management (DWPM) Plans. These plans will be similar to the BGMA plan in that they will primarily be groundwater focused plans that specifically target WHP areas. These plans will:
  • Meet EPA requirements for alternative 9-element watershed management plans
  • Increase WHP area delineations from 20 to 50 year delineations using three-dimensional groundwater models
  • Include strong implementable Information and Education programs
  • Use community based planning processes to develop the plan

Currently three Nebraska communities are in the process of developing DWPM plans. Two through the 2016 SWP Grant and one proposed project that will combine available 319 planning money and other grant sources. The ability to independently qualify for 319 project funding would provide a much needed funding stream to the many struggling communities in Nebraska. These new opportunities would not be possible without the innovative work that was done on the BGMA plan. The NDEQ looks forward to working with Nebraska communities to protect and improve their drinking water.

A special thanks to the BGMA stakeholders and the many individuals from various local, state, and federal organizations for their contributions to the development of this plan.

You can view the plan at and learn more about Drinking Water Protection Management Plans by visiting Select the Invitations for 2016 Source Water Protection link and open the fact sheet PDF.

EPA, 2016. Polluted Runoff: Nonpoint Source Pollution Webpage,

NDEQ, 2015. 2015 Nebraska Groundwater Quality Monitoring Report, 5 p.

NDEQ. 2016. Bazile Groundwater Management Plan, 42 p,

Friday, October 14, 2016

BLOG: 7 Reasons Groundwater is Magical

by Jennifer Wemhoff, The Groundwater Foundation

7 Reasons Groundwater is Magical

Loren Eisley said it best: "If there is magic on this planet, it is contained in water." Eisley was an American anthropologist, educator, philosopher, and natural science writer born in our hometown of Lincoln, NE. He's right on the mark - there is magic in water; more specifically, there is magic in groundwater.

Here's why:

1. Much like the rabbit hidden in the magician's hat, we can't see it! 

2. Mother Nature is the ultimate magician -  she makes precipitation disappear into the ground to make groundwater. 

3. It's way cooler than pulling a quarter out of someone's ear. In some cases, it can spurt from the ground on its own.

4. Groundwater disguises itself in every day things - in the water we drink, in the food we eat, in the clothes we wear.

5. Like magic, kids are enamored with groundwater. It makes them squeal with delight and expands their curiosity.

6. It's always there, but not always visible.

7. It quietly nourishes our lives and livelihoods.

You can help make magic happen. Becoming a member of The Groundwater Foundation supports programs that help kids discover the magic of groundwater (Read Ava's story), supports tools and resources for educators of all types, supports local teams working to protect groundwater and educate residents in their hometown, and makes you a partner in The Groundwater Foundation's mission to educate people and inspire action.

Make it happen! Become a member today.

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

BLOG: We Get By With a Little Help

by Kirk Welch, North Plains Groundwater Conservation District, Dumas, Texas

In the immortal words of John and Paul, “I get by with a little help from my friends.” The famous song by the Beatles probably didn’t specifically consider the challenges of water conservation outreach, but you get the idea. The point here is, that at one time or another, we all need a little help. In the world of groundwater conservation outreach, it’s sometimes more than a little.

As the assistant general manager in charge of conservation outreach for the North Plains Groundwater Conservation District (GCD), I find that often times the scope of the great ideas we have for extending the reach of groundwater conservation, far exceeds our ability to realize on our own. Whether it’s an idea for an award-winning agricultural demonstration, birthed as a friendly wager amongst our board members, or a project initiated by my predecessor, like our “Save the Planet’s Water Festival”, many of the district’s projects require partners. 

The district was formed in 1955 and celebrated its 60th Anniversary in 2015. It covers all or part of the eight northern most counties in the Texas Panhandle with the southern boundary roughly following the Canadian river. The district encompasses about 7300 square miles overlaying the Ogallala aquifer throughout, as well as the Dockum and Rita Blanca aquifers. The district has about 1,000,000 acres of irrigated cropland and some of the highest groundwater producing counties in the State of Texas. The water table is dropping an average of 2-3 feet a year across the district. Consequently, the heavy reliance on the declining Ogallala aquifer makes conservation a necessary way of life in the North Plains GCD, and we can’t do it alone.

One project that would be absolutely impossible without partners on all sides is the district’s Save the Planet’s Water Festival. Started in 2005, the festivals have hosted almost 6,000 4th graders for this full day of interactive water and natural resource conservation education. Beginning with one festival in Dumas the first year, a festival was added in the town of Perryton in 2006 and finally in Dalhart in 2011. The “Save the Planet’s Water Festivals” are made possible by community partners including Valero Energy, Frank Phillips College, United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) - Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), West Texas A&M University, Texas A&M Agrilife Extension, Texas Parks and Wildlife, Panhandle Groundwater Conservation District, all of the area’s school districts and many private schools, as well as many individual volunteers.

Agriculture conservation demonstration is another extremely resource intensive initiative of the district. Since roughly 95-percent of the groundwater produced in the district is used for irrigation, the board of directors, in 2009, began talking about how the district could demonstrate how agricultural users could conserve, while maintaining viable irrigated operations. The “200-12 Project,” based on the goal of producing 200 bushel corn crops with only 12-lnches of supplemental irrigation, was born out of a challenge between board member/growers who wanted to see who could be the most efficient.

Since beginning as a district-funded demonstration with board members as the only participants in 2010, the “200-12 Project” has received funding from both the Texas Water Development Board (TWDB) and the USDA – NRCS, and has involved many of the most progressive farmers in the northern Panhandle, including four members of the district board of directors. In 2015, the district's agriculture demonstrations were energized by a unique private/public partnership with Crop Production Services of Loveland, CO to cooperate in the operation of the district's North Plains Water Conservation Center (WCC). The 320 acre working farm is a showcase for agricultural water conservation strategies and corporate partner, CPS, along with local grower Stan Spain have worked side-by-side with the district to develop this unique project.

The “200-12 Project” received the NRCS Conservation Innovation Grant as part of the Texas High Plains Initiative for Efficient Irrigation Management and Conservation (Texas High Plains Initiative). The Texas High Plains Initiative was a cooperative effort between the district’s “200-12 Project” and the Texas Alliance for Water Conservation, including Texas Tech University, High Plains Underground Water Conservation District and others. With demonstrations spanning the High Plains from north to south, the Texas High Plains Initiative helped extend the reach of the conservation mission through out the region.

After several years of demonstration projects showcasing many best practices in agricultural water conservation, the board of directors wanted to take the next  step to move the initiative from demonstration to producer adoption. Recognizing that one of the biggest obstacles in adoption is the learning curve involved with many of the conservation strategies and technologies, the Master Irrigator program was created as a way to shorten that curve for a group of committed, influential producers. The Master Irrigator curriculum is made up of 4-5, full-day sessions and covers the topics of residue management; remote pivot monitoring and control; irrigation management using soil-moisture probes, telemetry and irrigation scheduling tools; managing irrigation with planting date; use of low-energy precision application irrigation or other high-efficiency delivery system; and adjusting nutrient application to address reduced irrigation. In addition, each session includes the economic implications of the strategies being presented. In its first year, the program attracted a full complement of 25 progressive growers from the area.
Again critical partnerships were instrumental in the success of this project. First, USDA- NRCS agreed to provide a special $1.6 million fund to support the Master Irrigator program. The fund is part of the Environmental Quality Incentive Program, and participants in Master Irrigator are given priority ranking for this special pool of funds. In its first year, over $400,000 were distributed to local growers to implement conservation practices, as a result of their participation in the Master Irrigator program.  Second, Texas AgriLife Extension provided essential technical assistance in program development and content.
These are just a few of the projects in which we proudly partner with industry, academia and the public to further the cause of conserving, protecting and preserving groundwater in the district.
However, I would definitely be remiss in talking about valuable partnerships if I did not include the district’s long-standing relationship with the Groundwater Foundation. The district has been a Groundwater Guardian (GG) Community since 2005. The foundation is a valuable resource for ideas, inspiration and support. The GG program, encourages members to organize like-minded partners within their communities to come together to promote groundwater conservation. The foundation conferences also offer opportunities to network and appropriate, borrow, or out-and-out steal the best ideas for your next initiative. Also, observing the achievements of other Groundwater Guardians inspires us to try new things, look at our existing projects in different ways and ultimately, to be more effective.

And last, but certainly not least, the GG designation in itself has a couple of very important benefits. First, preparation of the annual entry and status reports provides an opportunity for GG Communities to take inventory of, and a critical look at, the merits of each of our projects and programs. The changing dynamics of regulation, communication and various technologies, just to name a few, may determine whether a project needs minor adjustment, a major overhaul, or needs to be scrapped altogether. Second, the public relations benefits of a third-party endorsement of what we are doing, reinforces the credibility and relevance of our organizations.

So, I commend all our fellow conservationists and thank you for any and all ways you have aided my group, or any other, in the cause of groundwater. If you have not worked with one or more of the previously mentioned groups, I would suggest you give them a try. If you have worked with some that I have not listed here, it sounds like we need to talk! We get by with a little help!


Kirk Welch is the Assistant General Manager – Outreach at North Plains Groundwater Conservation District in the northern Texas Panhandle. He has worked for the last 28 years as a communications professional in television news, telecommunications and healthcare education, including the last seven years telling the story of groundwater conservation in the Texas Panhandle. He also serves on The Groundwater Foundation's Board of Directors. Reach him at

The views expressed in this blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the view of The Groundwater Foundation, its board of directors, or individual members.