Water is precious, especially in semi-arid environments like the Great Plains. Only one percent of the world’s water is available for drinking and agriculture. Nearly 97 percent of the world’s water is in the oceans or other saltwater sources that are undrinkable and toxic to plants. Another two percent is locked away in polar ice caps and glaciers. That leaves only one percent in the world’s streams, lakes and underground aquifers.
For rural states, the most important source of drinking water is an aquifer. The vast majority of the water that Nebraskans drink comes from the ground. Only 14 out of 1,353 water systems in the state use surface water. Nationally, 91 percent of the water systems rely on groundwater. But, because almost all large urban systems rely on huge lakes and reservoirs, many more people drink from surface water systems nationally.
No matter what the source, water is always in danger of contamination. Human wastes from flushing toilets need to be removed from drain pipes and disinfected before the water is returned to the streams. Animal waste, pesticides and even nutrients can run off of fields or percolate down to groundwater.
In the 1940s, some scientists became concerned with the potential of contamination from agricultural sources.
- More and more farmers were using irrigation, pesticides and fertilizers more often on their crops. The increased water makes it relatively easy for the chemicals to travel down into the groundwater.
- Antibiotics made huge cattle feedlots viable with huge deposits of manure. Again, these deposits can leach chemicals down to groundwater or run off into streams.
- More and more toxic chemicals were being used both on the farm and in the cities, and some of the chemicals washed off into streams and lakes.
The technological advances of the 1940s set the stage for major political fights over the environment in the coming decades. But farmers will tell you that they are the original environmentalists – since they live on the land, derive their livelihoods from it and have emotional ties to it. Most farmers have a strong commitment to preserving the environment, especially the underground aquifers.
Rural banker Kelly Holthus says he sees a commitment to farm cleanly in his rural clients in York County. “Nobody wants to contaminate,” he says. “I don’t think it should be ‘them against us’ or anything like that. I think everybody’s very interested. We just need good advice.”
Well driller Gordon Schmidt says the farmers are doing a pretty good job controlling pollution. “Of course, it’s being pushed by the government. It’s being pushed by the cities. But that’s the way things work. So I would not fear our water supply.”