Natalia Alamdari and Matthew Hansen Flatwater Free Press
Nebraska’s nitrate problem has academics, entrepreneurs and farmers asking: Can we solve it scientifically?
This is a daunting task. Arindam Malakar, a professor at the University of Nebraska, said “substantial” amounts of nitrate have already seeped into the vadose zone — the stretch of land between surface soil and groundwater — which in the next few years will Continue to seep into the water. Water Center and the University of Nebraska-Lincoln School of Natural Resources.
Malakar is studying that area, where nitrates are no longer helpful to crops, but have yet to reach the groundwater that supplies much of the state.
He received funding from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and is currently doing early-stage work looking at how nitrate and nitrogen behave and respond in the mesozone.
Understanding this could open up the possibility of future nitrate-reducing technologies, he said.
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New farming techniques have allowed cutting-edge farmers to reduce the amount of nitrogen they put into soil and groundwater.
Don Batie, a Lexington-area farmer who serves on the Nebraska Natural Resources Council, said adding the new additive to the nitrogen reduces the likelihood of nitrogen seeping into the water supply.
Real-time sensors also allow farmers using the technology to know exactly how much fertilizer they should be applying to various parts of their cornfields — eliminating the guesswork that often leads to overuse of fertilizer. Real-time sensor technology is expensive, Batie said, but that price will likely come down over time.
This year, Batie uses a product that absorbs nitrogen from the air onto his corn. That means he has to use fewer commercial fertilizers on those experimental corn fields.
In the future, Batie said, these advances could allow cornfields to grow using the abundance of nitrogen in the air — like soybeans — and further reduce the need for fertilizers.
Newly developed corn hybrids will also require less nitrogen fertilizer, he said.
“Agriculture must continue to improve our efficiency,” Barty said. “Many of us feel like we’ve come a long way. But I’m not saying we should celebrate. We have to keep getting better.”
Meanwhile, researchers in the private sector are exploring better ways to deal with high-nitrate water. At Lincoln-based company Vestal W2O, a team of scientists is turning to biology—specifically, algae that are smaller than the naked eye can see.
When grown in water containing nitrates, the algae use the nitrates to grow and remove them from the water, said Paul Blake, a former professor of biochemistry at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and the company’s chief scientific officer. Black said the technology was able to reduce nitrate levels from 250 parts per million to 5 parts per million.
The nitrate absorbed by the algae is converted into proteins and biomolecules. The algae can then be filtered, dried and turned into products like fertilizer granules – granules that farmers can reuse. The particles are less likely to contaminate groundwater.
“The nitrate is there, but it’s quickly absorbed by the growing plant,” Black said.
The science is solid, he said. But Vestal is facing challenges. Algae-based water treatment systems require specific conditions: the water needs to be constantly stirred and moved. The treatment system requires a specific level of carbon dioxide and a specific wavelength of light — and the researchers found that red works best.
Vestal’s project is running out of grants and no more grants are available. The sense of urgency is not enough, Black said.
“We have a health crisis in the Midwest. That alone should wake up a lot of people and say, ‘My gosh, this is an emergency that has to be dealt with,'” Black said. “It costs money. How do you define the cost of clean water?”
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