Developing a Plan to Help a Community Protect its Drinking Water

Mark Derowitsch, Communications

February 23, 2021

Residents of Springfield, Nebraska, enjoy the benefits of small-town living and the convenience of being near a large metropolitan area. About 1,600 people live in Springfield, which is located five miles south of the Omaha metro area.

The community has grown because of its proximity to Omaha. Since 2000, Springfield’s population has increased by nearly 20 percent and officials predict the city will continue to grow.

One of the challenges the city faces is providing enough clean drinking water and wastewater treatment for the growing community.

“We are going to continue to grow once the new sewer system is constructed,” said Kathleen Gottsch, city administrator of Springfield. “We are part of the South Sarpy Wastewater Agency, and all of our future development will be hooked onto that system. We recently allocated our remaining sewer capacity to new residential and commercial developments, so we’re looking to expand to keep up with future growth.”

The city owns and operates its own water system, which draws water from two active wells located just outside of town.

The city recently faced a new challenge regarding its water: nitrate contamination. In 2011, one of its wells was decommissioned because of high nitrate levels.

The city decided to add a third well to keep up with demand should one of the other two wells need to be shut down and to add capacity for a new development. The city is working with Olsson to add a third well.

“When we decommissioned the well back in 2011, we started thinking about adding another well,” Kathleen said. “We’re adding the third well to ensure our water system is in good supply for the development that’s coming, but we also need to protect the wells we have.”

In the Midwest, nitrates can find their way into groundwater from fertilizers. Nitrogen is one component of fertilizer, and the nitrogen that isn’t used by plants percolates into the groundwater in the form of nitrate. High levels of nitrate in drinking water can be harmful to the health of infants and women who are pregnant, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Additionally, according to the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, there is some limited evidence that nitrate may cause some cancers of the gastrointestinal tract in humans. 

Springfield officials needed to develop a plan to mitigate the threat of nitrate contamination in existing and future wells. Springfield worked with Olsson to develop a drinking water protection management plan (DWPMP), which won approval from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Nebraska Department of Environment and Energy (NDEE). Springfield’s DWPMP is the first fully approved plan in the nation that includes a comprehensive calculation of the nitrate-loading reductions to reduce groundwater contamination.

Understanding nitrate movement to groundwater is complex because of the different forms the chemical takes in the soil, variability of the soil and geological layers, and the variable rate at which nitrate can move. Just as important is being able to track the sources of nitrogen that contribute to groundwater contamination – from fertilizers for farms and yards to confined animal operations to nonpoint sources from urban and rural watersheds.

“Modeling nitrogen movement in the environment gives us a window from which we can make good decisions about how we manage this chemical and keep it from getting into our water sources,” said Ted Hartsig, soil scientist and Olsson project team member.

That’s where the expertise of Olsson’s Karen Griffin enters the picture. Karen, a technical leader on the firm’s Water Resources team, is a geologist who specializes in studying and modeling groundwater and hydrogeology. Karen’s work will help Springfield mitigate the threat of nitrate contamination in existing and new wells, in the city’s unsaturated zone, and in the aquifer in the surrounding area.

“Our team’s work will help city officials gain a better understanding of the potential risk to the city’s drinking water supply and allow officials to make informed decisions regarding future water system improvements,” Karen said.

Olsson serves as city engineer for Springfield, and part of our duties include performing source water protection activities. As part of the DWPMP, our Water Resources team helped Springfield identify the source of water quality problems and identified the drinking water source area that needs to be protected.

The city, thanks to its newly approved DWPMP, is now eligible for 319 Nonpoint Source Pollution project funds to implement best management practices and protect the city’s drinking water.

“These grants will provide us opportunities to work with local farmers and residents of our community concerning fertilizer application practices and education,” Kathleen said. “Through education, we can help people understand how chemicals in fertilizers can affect nitrate levels in our water.”

According to the NDEE, communities develop a DWPMP under the state Source Water Grant. Once that plan is approved by the EPA, these communities are eligible for federal 319 funding, which opens the door for three-year grants worth up to $300,000 for the project.

“Eligibility for 319 funds is so valuable for communities that get a plan developed and approved through NDEE’s Source Water Grant program,” said Tatiana Davila, groundwater geologist and source water protection coordinator at NDEE.

These funds can support ongoing outreach and education through workshops, cost-sharing for best management practices like cover crop seed and soil moisture sensors, and urban practices like rain gardens and bioswales. Communities can decide what is most needed and tailor projects to address their unique concerns.

The Papio-Missouri River Natural Resources District (PMRNRD) provided financial support to help prepare Springfield’s DWPMP, and several other agencies provided technical support and review. The city will work with the PMRNRD, the University of Nebraska, and the Natural Resources Conservation Service to implement elements of the plan.

“Funding from the EPA will really help the community. One of the things funding will do is allow agricultural producers in the area to make some changes to their farming practices that will help protect groundwater,” Karen said. “Some of these changes are expensive to make, but through the grant funding, landowners will be able to apply for increased cost-share for these improvements within the wellhead protection area, which is the source area for the community’s drinking water wells.”

Springfield officials will continue to work with Olsson to finalize details of the plan and map out a way to ensure its citizens have access to safe, clean drinking water well into the future.