ABC News recently reported that farmers and their use of nitrogen are responsible for the largest source of greenhouse gas emissions in the agriculture industry.
Also ahead of Christmas, the Washington Post reported that excessive fertilizer application is the primary driver of accelerating nitrous oxide intakes that contribute to climate change.
These are just some of the recent national stories about nitrates, which are an ongoing problem in many parts of Nebraska as they contaminate the water.
According to various studies, nitrates can cause everything from birth defects to certain types of cancer.
Wade Ellwanger, the Lower Niobrara NRD Water Resources Coordinator, discussed the issue Thursday with the Lower Elkhorn NRD Board of Directors.
Ellwanger, who has worked for the Lower Niobrara NRD for five years, said the nitrate problem was one of the first things he learned when he joined the NRD.
He said excessive fertilizer application is the main driver of accelerating nitrous oxide emissions that contribute to climate change.
“That’s why countries like Canada have required their growers to reduce their nitrous oxide emissions from fertilizers alone by 30 percent,” Ellwanger said. “But when you go to an agricultural event or pick up an agricultural publication, what do you hear? You hear carbon credits, carbon emissions, carbon reduction opportunities.
As noted on the US Environmental Protection Agency website, even though carbon emissions are 12.7 times greater than nitrogen emissions, nitrogen emissions are at least 265 times more effective at trapping the heat in the earth’s atmosphere over a 100-year period only carbon emissions, he mentioned.
Ellwanger, who graduated from Butte High School, said his main goal in speaking on the subject was to raise awareness.
“My hope is that with this awareness, we bring some urgency to the challenges we have been (facing) with our nitrogen situations in each of our own (NRD) districts,” Ellwanger said.
It can also be a difficult topic to talk about.
Nitrogen is a big topic that means different things to different people. It could mean “product”, “input”, “by-product”, “contaminant” or a combination of these terms for different people, he said.
“You add livelihoods and emotions, and that makes nitrogen one of the hardest things to tackle there is,” Ellwanger said.
According to The Fertilizer Institute, nitrogen directly impacts nearly $3 billion a year on the state’s economy. It creates more than 10,000 jobs and $665 million in wages.
Ways to prevent nitrogen contamination include:
— Do not apply nitrogen above recommendations.
— Do not apply it all at once, as in the spring, which increases the risk of runoff with the rain.
— Exercise caution and limit applications to shallow soils.
Ellwanger also posted various maps showing problem areas in the state and how they have changed over time. In most places in Nebraska, the problem has worsened over the past 20 years.
Members of the Lower Elkhorn NRD board of directors posed questions to Ellwanger and noted that education on the issue is one of the best ways to address the issue.