Want to Get Rid of Nitrate Pollution in Nebraska?

Give Cash to Farmers

Jason Siegelin | February 2021

Farmland surrounding Scottsbluff National Monument in Gering, Nebraska

Across the Cornhusker State, as recently as 2015, nitrate measurements stood at or above the EPA maximum contaminant level (MCL) of 10 milligrams per liter (mg/L) in the groundwater beneath 58 counties.1 29.5 percent of the state’s drinking wells tested for nitrate concentrations above the MCL in 2018, and approximately 1.7 million Nebraskans rely on groundwater as a source of drinking water. This pollution in large part results from the use of commercial fertilizers and manure on cropland, and the risk of health issues, including colorectal cancers, thyroid disease, birth defects, and limited blood-oxygen supply, increases dramatically in individuals consuming nitrate-contaminated water, making Nebraska’s nitrate problem both an agro-environmental issue and a public health dilemma.

This presents farmers in the state with a collective action problem. To prevent nitrate from leaching into groundwater systems, farmers have to implement nitrate-reducing best management practices (BMPs), ranging from efficient fertilizer application to proper fertilizer storage, practices which bring with them concentrated financial costs. But individual farmers alone benefit little from implementing BMPs on their land, incentivizing them to “free-ride” and neglect the public good of water quality.

Nevertheless, Nebraska can look to Pennsylvania for a model policy with which to combat nitrate pollution. The Keystone State’s Conservation Excellence Grant Program provides farmers with grants, tax credits, and loans to implement BMPs, including manure storage facility construction, nutrient management plan adoption, and stream-side buffering, to mitigate nitrate leaching and pollution throughout the Chesapeake Bay Watershed.

If Nebraska wants to combat its collective action problem and reduce nitrate pollution in groundwater, the state should implement an incentives program similar to Pennsylvania’s for three specific reasons.

First, an incentive payments program would lower the individual costs of implementing BMPs to as little as $0, altering farmers’ cost-benefit structure and increasing the opportunity cost of neglecting groundwater purity, which is a public good for 88 percent of Nebraskans.2 This solving of the collective action problem through a subsidy for BMPs is theoretically shown to change farmers’ behavior, with lasting environmental results. For instance, one Illinois-based study found that, if participating farmers in the Midwest cut nitrogen application rates by only 14 percent in response to incentive payments, the amount of nitrogen-based compounds reaching water systems in the region could be reduced by nearly 60 percent.3

Second, Pennsylvania’s incentives program prioritizes funding for projects in parts of the state that are most vulnerable to pollution and closest to the Chesapeake Bay, a model that would work well in Nebraska, where nitrate contamination of groundwater is confined to specific regions. Nebraska’s highest nitrate concentrations, frequently surpassing 20 mg/L, exist north of the Elkhorn River in the state’s northeast, along the Platte River in eastern and southern Nebraska, and near the Colorado border.4 By using a policy similar to Pennsylvania’s, Nebraska would be able to focus the most funding on regions facing the most groundwater pollution.

Third, Nebraska already possesses the regulatory framework with which to implement a regionally prioritized BMP incentives program. Financially, the state runs the Nebraska Soil and Water Conservation Fund, wherein cost-share assistance is provided to farmers for implementing land conservation practices, including terracing, windbreak renovation, and brush management. Nebraska’s local system of natural resources management is also compatible with a Pennsylvania-style program. Specifically, Nebraskan natural resources districts (NRDs) are local government entities tasked with imposing educational requirements “designed to protect water quality.” Because Pennsylvania’s policy allows farmers to utilize technical assistance from county conservation districts for implementing funded BMPs, Nebraskan NRDs can play a consultative role similar to that of Pennsylvania’s conservation districts. Therefore, Nebraska’s existing regulatory infrastructure can allow the state to use already-familiar regulatory bodies and procedures, easing the transition to a new incentives policy.

Now some might claim that the aforementioned Soil and Water Conservation Fund is a Nebraskan equivalent of Pennsylvania’s incentive payments policy, which would eliminate the need for a new policy. But there are crucial differences between the two. Nebraska currently finances projects, many of which are only tangentially related to nitrate pollution, through a limited cost-share scheme, funding implementation costs for specific BMPs at inflexible, uniform cost-share rates, often capped at 50 percent of expenses. On the other hand, Pennsylvania provides a more tailored and cost-efficient combination of grants, tax credits, and loans on a site-by-site basis, eliminating bias towards farmers with greater financial resources.

In conclusion, Nebraska is starved for a new groundwater policy that can alter the cost-benefit structure of farmers and enable a more effective attack on nitrate pollution. Without such a policy, Nebraska’s nitrate monster will continue to prey on drinking water quality and the state’s public health.

here is an invisible monster lurking beneath Nebraska, contaminating the state’s groundwater. Its name is nitrate pollution.

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Jason Siegelin is the Editor-in-Chief of Midwestern Citizen and a junior at the University of Michigan, studying Economics, Political Science, and Business. His writing interests include constitutional law, American political development, antitrust policy, and creative nonfiction. Outside of MC, Jason enjoys running, investing, and college football.

Footnotes 

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Nebraska Department of Environmental Quality, “2016 Nebraska Groundwater Quality Monitoring Report,” 2016, (17).

“Nebraska Groundwater Quality Monitoring,” 5.

Eric A. DeVuyst et al., “A Group Incentive Contract to Promote Adoption of Best Management Practices,” Journal

of Agricultural and Resource Economics 24, no. 2 (December 1999): 377

“Nebraska Groundwater Quality Monitoring,” 5.