Nonpoint Source Pollution: Worse than the XL Pipeline


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By Jane Griffin

Who would have guessed that it would be a proposed pipeline that would put in evidence the concern for and interest in the aquifer and the life-sustaining resource it contains: groundwater. But, boy, it sure has. It almost seems as if the fate of the pipeline equates the fate of the aquifer. Instead, the one indisputable fact relevant to this discussion is this: no matter what the outcome is of the proposed Keystone XL pipeline, there will continue to be issues that strain or put our water supply at risk as our society grows and evolves.

It doesn’t take an expert to predict that; in fact, all you need to do is look at the situation today and you will find a multitude of existing contaminants and risks that currently are threatening or are contaminating our aquifer system. Which logically begs the question: where have you all been for the past 25 years? And will your declared allegiance to the resource remain strong? Let’s take a look at the other issues. But first, let’s define a couple of key points.

The Ogallala Aquifer is the principle aquifer in the High Plains Aquifer system and obviously the main aquifer that is beneath the state of Nebraska, but the other formations do also contribute to our groundwater resources. Groundwater is the water beneath our feet, but it is not an underground ocean, lake or river. It is the water contained between the sand, soil and rock particles that make up the geological formation that contains it: the aquifer. Groundwater is like the water in the sponge, the sponge being the aquifer.

Finally, just as we rely on groundwater (it supplies the drinking water for over 85 percent of Nebraskans, and it is the major source of irrigation to grow our food) groundwater relies on us to protect and conserve it. In fact, the quality of our drinking water is largely dependent on our actions; while some contamination occurs naturally the majority of source water pollution is due to human actions.1

So what are those actions that are creating threats to our water supply? Let’s first look at existing threats.

To do this, let’s define a couple of other important things: point source pollution and nonpoint source pollution. Point source pollution is when you can identify exactly where a pollutant is coming from. Examples include discharge from a factory, chemical storage tanks, landspreading of sewage treatment plant sludges, septic tanks and drainfields, leakage from underground storage tanks, leakage from underground pipelines and sewers, sewage lagoons, sanitary landfills, sumps and dry wells, graveyards, improperly filled and sealed wells, drainage wells, mines, improperly constructed private wells. These are all existing elements that are present in our urban or rural communities and all need to be managed properly.

Nonpoint source pollution is when you cannot identify a specific spot that the contamination is coming from, for example run-off from fertilizer or salt solution used on city streets during the winter. Due to its nature, nonpoint source pollution is obviously the more difficult beast to battle. This clearly stands true in Nebraska. The number one issue that our state is dealing with is nitrate contamination in our groundwater. So, what are nitrates? Where do they come from? Nitrates come from nitrogen sources, such as fossil fuels, lightning, fertilizer, human and animal waste. They are important for plant growth, but, just as the saying goes, too much of a good thing becomes a bad thing. Plants can only utilize so much, the rest enters the soil and leaches to the groundwater—or runs off the land directly into surface water. The repercussions are not insignificant; in fact, numerous studies have been conducted to determine the impact of elevated nitrates in drinking water, such as the Iowa’s Women’s Health Study. So what is being done about this? Our local Natural Resource Districts (NRDs) have been working with their constituents to assist in adopting new management practices that reduce the nutrient load. But the bulk of what is being done is not addressing the root of the problem; it is limited to reactionary efforts, including installation of water treatment plants, closure of wells or entire communities’ water system. This happens because public water systems are regulated by the Environmental Protection Agency. EPA standards dictate that nitrates cannot exceed 10 milligrams/liter. You can see the situation in Nebraska on the nitrate map.

While the picture paints a pretty clear picture of the severity of the issue, let’s back the picture up with some additional statistics. Over 32 percent of groundwater wells tested across the state in 2009 exceeded drinking water standards (NDEQ 2010 Groundwater Monitoring Report). This only represents a portion of the full picture. Only public water systems are required by law to be tested (it is the responsibility of the homeowner to test the water quality of their well). Unfortunately, we know that the full picture does not get any better if we consider recent findings in the USGS Circular 1350, “Nutrients in the Nation’s Streams and Groundwater 1992–2004,” which found “nitrate contamination of groundwater used for drinking water, particularly in shallow private wells in agricultural areas, is a continuing human-health concern and that excessive nutrient enrichment is widespread in streams. Despite major Federal, State, and local efforts to control point and non-point sources and transport of nutrients, concentrations of nutrients have remained the same or increased in many streams and aquifers across the Nation since the early 1990s.” It is important to remember that nitrates can persist in groundwater for years or decades, so while it is vital to implement better management practices, the results may not be apparent for years to come. So, is the answer “stop using fertilizer”? While it would seem like a simple solution, it truthfully is not feasible. Recently our world population surpassed seven billion and is expected to surpass nine billion in only a few decades, which means that the demand for food will double. This increased demand poses significant challenges, therefore it is imperative to focus on improving the technology we have, integrating new and better ways to ensure that we are meeting this mandate, but doing it in a way that will not negatively impact other parts of our delicate ecosystem.

Let’s not forget about those of us who live in urban settings. We too are contributing to the load of nitrates in our water supply. Improper use of fertilizer is again an issue in urban settings. We all enjoy our green lawns and thriving gardens, and there is no reason we shouldn’t; we just need to be aware of the fact that we can achieve rewarding results without creating unintended environmental degradation. Not each of us has the opportunity to become a horticulture or turf expert, but we can take a few simple steps to ensure we are good environmental stewards. The easiest thing to do is to read the instructions on product packages and follow the recommended dosages. Don’t think a little more will only make it better; it won’t. Also, after applying fertilizer to your lawn, remember to sweep up any that is on surrounding sidewalks, streets or driveways. With the next rain or watering they will flow directly down the storm sewer and end up in a stream or river. Seem simple? In reality it is: don’t just guess, don’t just do what you have always done and clean up after you have completed your application.

The best news is that it works! At the Groundwater Foundation we have been able to document and showcase the positive environmental impact that constituents in typically more urban settings have achieved through our Green Sites program. Green Sites is designed to assist and recognize turf managers for adopting groundwater-friendly practices. The program has produced significant data to demonstrate that individual actions do make a significant collective impact. Currently approximately 150 sites are participating in this program and have reduced fertilizer applications by over 770,000 pounds by adjusting their applications on nutrient analyses.

There are other things that we as individuals and as members of communities can be doing to ensure that the needed practices are being implemented in our hometowns and surrounding areas. We need to focus on getting at the root of the problem, not waiting for the punitive or regulatory “reactions” to happen. As mentioned before, reactions include installation of water treatment plants, which translates into a huge investment, upwards of millions of dollars, plus annual maintenance and required training for treatment plant operators. You don’t have to look far to find a community that has been forced to install a water treatment plant designed to treat regulated contaminants. Since the mid-1980s, the number exceeds 285. While this can be a solution (costly, but doable) for a larger community, many communities in our state cannot afford this option. Other options include drilling new wells and hooking up to a neighboring community’s water system, but these are not always feasible either.

As mentioned, we need to do our part, and this mainly revolves around prevention. We must take proactive efforts to prevent our municipal supply from becoming contaminated. One of the most effective measures to take is to put together a wellhead protection plan. Have you ever seen the signs that say “entering a wellhead protection area”? Wellhead Protection is a way to prevent drinking water from becoming polluted by managing potential sources of contamination in the area that supplies water to a public well. These signs indicate that the community has a state-approved wellhead protection plan in place. Since the term “wellhead protection” can seem abstract, new signs have been designed and will start to appear in 2012. A wellhead protection plan is a voluntary action that communities can and should be taking. Does your community have one? If not, now is the time to get the ball rolling. To find out how, contact The Groundwater Foundation, your local NRD or the Nebraska Department of Environmental Quality. Similarly, you can also develop a Watershed Protection Plan; again, contact any of the above listed agencies to get started.

Now, let’s look at issues that are looming on the horizon, which brings us back to one of the primary issues surrounding the pipeline: energy. We cannot ignore our society’s overwhelming need for energy, which dictates two things: development of new technologies and consumption patterns. First, we need to find new sources of energy and develop the technology to capture and utilize the energy to meet our needs. There are many sources of energy, but the technology and processes needed to capture the energy and supply it to end users is complicated. One process, that recently has received a lot of coverage in the media is hydraulic fracturing, often referred to as fracking. Hydraulic fracturing has been touted as an important part of the solution to lower our dependence on oil from foreign countries. Hydraulic fracturing is a part of a process to extract oil and natural gas from deep in the earth’s subsurface; this is done by drilling deep into the earth’s crust and injecting a blend of water, sand (which makes up about 98 percent) and chemical compounds (which makes up the remaining 2 percent), causing cracks in rock formations underground. These cracks in the rock then allow natural gas and oil to flow and be captured for energy production. While this, to date, has not been an issue that we Nebraskans have had to deal with, it could potentially be. In fact, the Niobrara shale formation is situated in northeastern Colorado and parts of adjacent Wyoming, Nebraska and Kansas. The Niobrara is in its early stages, and companies have been busy leasing land for future drilling. What does this mean for us? It means we need to know more about the process and what the effective benefits are as well as the potential risks. For example, what are the risks of contaminating our water supply? What is the amount of water needed for the process? What is done with the waste products from the injection procedure? But the risks of contamination and water consumption are not limited to hydraulic fracturing. Other sources of energy, including solar, wind, biomass, nuclear, geothermal, water, etc., all pose their own set of potential negative impacts. We need to look at our energy consumption today and realistically plot out a solution to reducing our dependence on our dominant energy sources while taking into consideration the impact of new technologies. We cannot expect there to be one panacea. The solution is going to be found by identifying and developing a combination of multiple energy options. This will take time; it will take educated and motivated youth to tackle this 21st-century problem. Therefore we must invest in educating our youth in the fields of science, math, technology and engineering, but we also must ensure youth are interacting with nature and understanding our complex ecosystems. Today’s youth will be tomorrow’s decision makers. If their assumptions and understandings of nature are incorrect, how can they make informed decisions? We have seen, in working with youth, how the connection to nature is often missing. For example, the simple realization that everything that we use in our daily lives comes from the earth is often a major revelation. It is that type of awareness, combined with education, that produces a generation of capable leaders who seek out sound information and solutions, understand the need to weigh the pros and cons of all decisions and, therefore, implement practices and influence policy makers in ways that ensure meeting long-term societal needs.

Does that mean we wait for the next generation to solve the problems that have been created? No, we must take to heart the Native American proverb: “we do not inherit the earth from our ancestors; we borrow it from our children.” As such, we need to take a hard look at our consumption patterns, as individuals, as groups, as businesses, as communities. We can do better, and we must.

Which brings us back to our central question: Can the energy and the concern that the pipeline has generated be harnessed into on-the-ground protection efforts to safeguard our aquifer from more than another pipeline? Or will this energy and concern pass? We can’t afford to let it!

Now is the time to leverage that energy. And the Groundwater Foundation wants to do it in the way that we have always done it: by recognizing the commendable efforts of individuals and communities that are working tirelessly behind the scenes to ensure that drinking water and the water that grows our food is clean and available for future generations. The Groundwater Foundation does not subscribe to scare tactics. The foundation recognizes the need for solutions that take into consideration our evolving society and our environment. The foundation also knows the challenges that face our water resources are not caused by any one entity or industry but rather by all of us in many different ways. As such, the Groundwater Foundation believes that each of us who benefits from the bounty of the resource is responsible for protecting and conserving it. The foundation believes that collectively these individual actions will make a difference. We not only believes this, but have witnessed it.

Let’s look at a community that has had to deal with both nitrates and the first Keystone TransCanada pipeline that was built in 2008: Seward, Neb. Seward relies 100 percent on groundwater for its drinking water and, like many communities across the state, had exceeded the limit for nitrates. After researching various options, the community installed a multimillion dollar water treatment plant. Additionally the pipeline was constructed three-quarters of a mile upgradient of the city’s south well field. What this means is that a leak from the pipeline potentially could be transported into the city’s south well field. The community of Seward benefits from an active Groundwater Guardian team, whose mission is to educate the community about their source of drinking water and to involve the community in protection efforts. The Groundwater Guardian team not only revised their wellhead protection plan, they put it into action by implementing a monitoring system for the south well field. In fact, U.S. Geological Survey is monitoring the situation by verifying the direction of the groundwater flow and estimating the depth of the aquifer, sampling wells in the vicinity of the well field for nutrients and volatile organic compounds and conducting passive soil sampling. The technology developed for this project is designed to provide early detection of leaks and potentially can be used in other areas where drinking water could be at risk. For more information on USGS’s project, visit These are examples of proactive efforts that communities need to be aware of, support and utilize to ensure their drinking water is protected for today and tomorrow. (See below for more examples on what you can do to protect groundwater.)

The Groundwater Foundation is not going to tell you whether you should be for or against the pipeline, for or against development of alternative sources of energy, etc., etc. That is not our role. Our role is twofold: to provide access to reliable information that will assist you in making an educated decision. In fact, it is exactly this purpose of the Groundwater Foundation that attracted me to the position I hold now. Often people ask—and I assume plenty others wonder but don’t ask—why is an art historian, trained in museum management, running the Groundwater Foundation? Where is that connection? It lies in conveying information to assist in making an educated decision. As a museum curator I am not going to attempt to convince you one artistic era is more important than another. Not only would it be wrong, it would simply be a personal opinion. I am going to provide you with relevant information and an as accurate presentation as possible for you to make your own decision. This is exactly what we are doing at the Groundwater Foundation, but here we are not talking about art, we are talking about groundwater and the issues that surround it. So, there is the connection. But there is yet another. A huge component of museum management is protection and conservation of the artwork. Ironically the worst thing for protecting and conserving art is putting it on display—so in complete juxtaposition. Which brings me to the second role of the Groundwater Foundation: to involve individuals and communities in water conservation and protection. Obviously not using water would be the most effective way to conserve it, and not participating in an evolving society would protect it. But it’s not that simple. The solution lies in finding the common ground between use and conservation/protection (just like displaying and conserving art). As such, at the Groundwater Foundation we are always looking for ways to help people adopt behaviors to conserve water, to be smarter about their personal use. The first step to this is to understand that water is an integral component to every aspect of our lives. Once that connection has been made, the steps that each of us can take to do our part can be identified and adopted. Then we must celebrate our successes, by showing how collectively our actions do have an impact.

Groundwater truly is the unsung hero—it has been, until recently, the epitome of “out of sight, out of mind.” So, we need to keep groundwater in the forefront of our conversations, in the forefront of the decisions we are making. While we recognize it is not the only consideration and topic to be discussed, we have to ensure it has a place at the table. We need to remember that we rely on groundwater for sustaining life and for our livelihood, and that groundwater relies on us. Let’s Keep It Clean!

What You Can Do to Protect Groundwater

So, what can you do? Your community can become a Groundwater Guardian, just like Seward, Nebraska and over 100 other communities across North America. For more information about the program, call us or visit our website,, and click on the Groundwater Guardian button.

Maybe that program isn’t a fit. Why not become or recruit a Green Site in your community? Any site that is managing turf (golf courses, educational and corporate campuses, athletic fields, etc.) can apply for the Green Site designation. Hundreds of sites across North America are a part of this program and collectively have reduced potential threats to our groundwater supply, as well as conserved hundreds of millions of gallons of water. Again, call us or visit our website and click on the Green Site button for more information.

Get your school involved in groundwater education projects, visit a water festival or get fun activities off of our web site (, Kids Corner). Never doubt that a brief introduction can truly foster a future steward. Take Brandon Davis’s story. Here is a letter we received from Brandon in 2009:

I would have to say that the Groundwater Festival was one of my first experiences with issues related to the environment. At the festival I received my first glimpse at the interrelatedness of people and their environment. How the choices we make and the way we live our lives has a real impact on our future and on future generations.

I learned that our natural resources are in fact finite and must be respected. We only have one world and it has to last. These concepts first made real at the Groundwater Festival stayed with me as I continued my education. In college I was very involved in our campus environmental organization where we worked to bring awareness about environmental issues to other students.

I was drawn to the field of sustainability because it seemed a perfect fit with what I had been doing the last couple of years. I am currently studying a Master's degree in Sustainable Rural Development in Montevideo, Uruguay. The program focuses on finding sustainable solutions to a variety of problems encountered by rural farmers. Solutions that protect the environment, that respect the natural resources and that leave the world the same or preferably better for future generations.

It may be hard to believe that something like the Groundwater Festival could have such an impact on someone's life but it is true. The concepts I learned at an early age stayed with me and translated into a drive to deepen my knowledge in that area. That is exactly why programs like this are so important because they plant the seeds. Seeds that one day may grow into something great. (We'll have to wait and see about the whole greatness thing.)

Or become a member of the Groundwater Foundation. Membership dollars support education and outreach programs. Visit or call us at (402) 434-2740 and become a member today. It is only through your support that we can continue our efforts.



1. Unesco, Zaporozec, A., (2002), Groundwater Contamination Inventory, IHP-VI, Series on Groundwater No. 2, page 25


A shorter print version of this article may be found in the December 2011 issue of Prairie Fire.


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