Improving Water Starts with Conservation Techniques

By William Whited

While places like Nebraska maintain high quality standards for water used for drinking, agriculture and wildlife, changes in one water supply can also affect another supply, said Tom Franti, associate professor of biological systems engineering for the University of Nebraska-Lincoln Water Center.

Franti said the need to conserve limited freshwater supplies rises with the world's growing population. But, he said, crop chemicals like atrazine may make that task more difficult. Unlike municipal drinking water standards, the standards for agriculture water are less strict and pose a greater vulnerability for waste to leach into natural habitats. According to Franti, federal law regulates different standards for safe water depending on its use.

"You want to have water that's going to be healthy for everyone who consumes it," Franti said. "You can't just say, 'well, our drinking water is one thing and our ag water is another thing,' because ultimately they're part of one whole system," he said, adding that nature's water system is tightly connected, with storm water runoff often draining through agricultural lands to replenish the reservoirs used for drinking water.

Not only are people affected from the farm to the city, but wildlife too may suffer if contaminants are not kept under a certain maximum, he said.

"They (animals) don't have the ability to change their water quality like we do before we consume it," Franti said. "They are subject to whatever water that they receive through the ecosystem, and they have to live with that. So if that water is very poor quality, it can threaten their whole life cycle."

Different Standards and Regulations for Different Uses
"Every industrial water treatment system has a permit that allows them to discharge water at a certain standard level," Franti said. "So if there's a contaminant in industrial water, they have to clean it up to a certain level." Unlike standards for municipal and industrial wastewater, agricultural runoff water remains unregulated at its source. "It's a non-point source, which means water in agriculture comes from all the fields, all the operations, streams, lakes and reservoirs," Franti said. "There are standards for the quality of that water when it's consumed, or where it's used. But where the water comes from there's no enforced standards," he said.

Federally mandated contamination levels, or the highest levels of lead, arsenic, mercury and hundreds of other hazardous materials in treated water deemed safe for human consumption, vary by use and source, Franti said. Unlike high water standards for treated water in municipal supplies, rural areas have no quality guarantee if drawn directly from aquifers, and require extra environmental safeguarding to limit the spread of pollution, he said.

"One difference in rural areas is that homes that are on wells don't necessarily have water treatment. Most of them might have a water softener," he said. While treating rural water may improve the quality of life, sometimes natural contaminants like iron-rich soil and leaked oil can heavily pollute critical sources such as wells.

Many rural residents have wells that supply their water and Franti said the well's quality may determine whether residents can live on the land and support livestock and crops. "If they have high nitrates, they might have a distillation system to clean out some of that for personal use. But if they have poor water quality in their aquifer through their well, there's not a lot they can do about it, except go to a different source," he said.

"That's another reason we want to keep our agricultural water quality high, so that those groundwater systems don't get so contaminated that rural homeowners can no longer use that well water," Franti said. He said one key to combating water pollution is to use technology such as conservation buffers, which use a systematic arrangement of trees, shrubs and grasses that doubles as wildlife habitat.

Preserving Water Quality, Investing in the Future
He said conservation buffers consist of planting vegetation along waterways, such as streams, to limit harmful materials from getting into the water. Coupled with good farm management practices like limiting fertilizer and pesticide use, Franti said, these vegetation barriers can help preserve water quality downstream, and also the habitat for wildlife. But, he said, both urban and rural residents need to have a permanent commitment to good practices in preserving water quality for the future.

"Supporting things like bonding to pay for replacement of treatment plants in order to have high quality water will be important," Franti said. "There are potentially ways to look at some

Dr. Tom Franti

Dr. Tom Franti

new solutions as well," he said, including UNL's continued water research using equipment like the rainwater runoff simulator machine. This scaled machine simulates rainstorms to measure how different kinds of vegetation filter water over long periods of time. Unlike real world rainfall, the machine allows control of the amount of water, soil and contaminants in testing the filtering effectiveness of experimental buffers.

According to Franti, water quality issues also affect urban areas. Pollutants such as car exhaust, leaked oil, tire rubber residue, lawn fertilizer and other materials wash into storm drains, then flow out to lakes and streams. This is because paved landscapes like streets and driveways don't filter or absorb water to improve its quality. Because of pavement, urban areas actually produce 4 to 5 times more runoff water per area than in rural regions.

With little soil to absorb water, urban areas also experience more flooding problems, Franti said.

Water Research and Consumption
"Using less water means you have to treat less water, which saves money at the end," Franti said, adding that populations need extension outreach. Through outreach, Nebraskans and populations worldwide can change their water use habits to better prepare for increased future needs.

A growing trend to communicate outreach for farmers to use fewer chemicals involves incentive programs. The programs, provided by Nebraska Natural Resource Districts or federal agencies, such as the Department of Agriculture's Natural Resources Conservation Service, reward farmers with payments over time for practicing safer farming methods such as no-till farming, Franti said.

In addition to cooperative work with Nebraska's Department of Environmental Quality, Franti said UNL will continue looking for grant support from federal agencies, such as the United States Department of Agriculture, for rural and agricultural research. He said supporting elements of water, agriculture and overall livelihood in places like Nebraska remain interconnected in many ways, economically, socially and academically.

"If you cut agricultural research dollars, we won't have a lot of the things available to do our research," Franti said. Water quality also determines the success of our neighbors, especially crop-producing states, he said.

"I'm involved with a regional project on water and water quality that includes Kansas, Missouri, Iowa, and Nebraska," Franti said. This research collaboration started in the early 2000s with watersheds and streams flowing from Nebraska into Kansas.

By partnering with neighboring states and environmental agencies, Franti said he hopes to continue the positive experience he's had working on water quality projects. With each project, people nationwide are better served.

"Nebraska has a very good reputation with other states as being very proactive doing education and watershed-based outreach," Franti said. "So we get a lot of positive feedback from our partners out there when we work with them." The goal, Franti said, is the put all communities on the same map with the attitude that water quality affects everyone's lives.

"You have to avoid this us-versus-them problem to talk about how we can make a solution happen," he said.


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