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Senator calls for incentives to reduce nitrogen fertilizer use, improve water quality

By: - February 13, 2024 4:45 pm
nitrates in water

The darker portions of this map indicate areas where nitrate levels exceed 10 parts per million, the level of health concern in drinking water. (Courtesy of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln Institute of Agriculture and Natural Resources)

LINCOLN — A rural state senator called Tuesday for providing financial incentives for farmers to use less nitrogen fertilizer and help clean up the state’s groundwater.

Legislative Bill 1368, introduced by State Sen. Teresa Ibach of Sumner, would pay no less than $10 an acre for farmers who reduce their use of synthetic fertilizers, such as anhydrous ammonia, and switch to “biological” alternatives, such as coating seeds with microbes that draw nitrogen from the air.

Ibach told members of the Legislature’s Agriculture Committee the goal of her “Nitrogen Reduction Incentive Act” is to encourage farmers to adopt “sustainable practices” to avoid and hopefully reduce nitrate contamination of groundwater.

One in five wells has high levels

“This is the start of a very, very important conversation,” said Ibach.

Ibach
State Sen. Teresa Ibach of Sumner. (Craig Chandler / University Communication)

Currently, one in five public water supplies and private wells in Nebraska tests high for nitrate contamination, which has been linked to one of the nation’s highest rates of pediatric cancer.

Supporters of the bill said nitrogen fertilizer is often overapplied, allowing it to leech into groundwater or run off into streams and lakes, causing harmful algae blooms and the “dead zone” where the Mississippi River dumps into the Gulf of Mexico.

Ibach said it has taken years for excess nitrates to leech into the state’s groundwater and it will take years to reverse that trend, but she said LB 1368 is a “proactive” first step to change farming practices.

“This message that this bill sends is as important as the details of the bill itself,” she said.

The measure has nine cosponsors and has attracted support from several organizations, ranging from the Nebraska Farm Bureau and Nebraska Chamber of Commerce to the Sierra Club and the League of Women Voters.

Incentives encourage change

Hank Robinson of the Omaha-based Aksarben Foundation said the incentives in the bill would help farmers now “sitting on the fence” to make the change to more sustainable practices.

The bill’s incentives are capped at $5 million a year, which Robinson and some other supporters said should be increased. He suggested that perhaps farmers could get a property tax credit for adopting more sustainable practices.

Ibach said under LB 1368, the incentives would end after five years because she believes that farmers will ultimately switch to more sustainable practices due to market forces.

One senator on the committee, Merv Riepe of Ralston, questioned whether past efforts to reduce nitrates have left the state “spinning its wheels.” Some advocates have criticized the state’s slow response to the nitrate issue.

While no opponents testified against the bill during a public hearing Tuesday, Edison McDonald of GC Resolve, which advocates for rural communities and regenerative agriculture, testified neutral.

McDonald said the bill should also provide incentives for traditional farming practices that reduce nitrates, such as filter strips and cover crops. He added that more research needs to be done on the biological alternatives cited in the bill to ensure there are no unintended problems.

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Paul Hammel
Paul Hammel

Senior Reporter Paul Hammel has covered the Nebraska state government and the state for decades. Previously with the Omaha World-Herald, Lincoln Journal Star and Omaha Sun, he is a member of the Omaha Press Club's Hall of Fame. He grows hops, brews homemade beer, plays bass guitar and basically loves traveling and writing about the state. A native of Ralston, Nebraska, he is vice president of the John G. Neihardt Foundation.

Nebraska Examiner is part of States Newsroom, the nation’s largest state-focused nonprofit news organization.

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