01/31 - Grant brings “Know your well” program to 16 Nebraska schools

Water Sciences Laboratory

Students at more than dozen Nebraska schools will learn about possible contaminants in their well water, how to test for them and learn differences between field and laboratory methods, under a new Nebraska Environmental Trust (NET) project being conducted by a consortium of water experts at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

“It’s about helping people understand what might be in their well water and how to test water. It’s about helping rural residents be informed consumers and replacing indifference or uncertainty with knowledge,” said UNL graduate student Chris Olson, who is helping to manage the NET “Know your well” program.

The program, designed for training students in assessing the quality of drinking water derived from rural domestic wells, will involve science and agricultural education programs and FFA chapters at 16 high schools throughout eastern and central Nebraska, Olson said. 

Over the three-year life of the project, each school group will be given a test kit for measuring water parameters and will be provided with training needed to properly use the kits, Olson said.

“Students and their teachers also will be trained on collecting information about the well and various factors that might influence the quality of water from those wells,” said Olson’s faculty advisor Dan Snow, who manages the Water Sciences Laboratory at UNL that is part of the Nebraska Water Center.

“Some of the well parameters they will learn about and make part of their water quality study include type of well, status of the well seal at the land surface, topographic position of the well, distance of the well from cropland, chemicals used, and susceptibility for run-off on the property, among others.

A mobile app will be developed as part of the project to ease data entry and will be used directly by the students.

Water samples tested by the students will be compared with analysis of the same samples by research technicians at the WSL, Snow said.

It’s important for students to learn both about contaminants and the wide variety of ways to measure and analyze them, Olson said.

Most Nebraskans rely on groundwater drawn wells for their drinking water and few of domestic wells are regularly tested, he said, noting “It can be an expensive, time-consuming and confusing process.”

Contaminants in well water, many associated with agricultural pesticide and fertilizer use, as well as those that occur naturally, can be a constant threat to those sourcing their domestic water needs from a private well.

“National surveys confirm that domestic wells have a variety of contaminants that are potentially detrimental to health, including radon, arsenic, uranium, nitrate, fluoride, pesticides and many others,” Snow said, noting that many factors can contribute to occurrence of pesticides in groundwater, including type of aquifer, well depth and age, well type, land use around the well (farmland, lawn, or garden), topography around the wellhead, and window of time between pesticide application and a significant rains, among others.

“All of this and more will be part of the education program that goes with the actual sampling and testing of well water samples, said Olson.

Collected samples will be analyzed for Nebraska specific pesticides, nitrate and coliform bacteria by faculty and staff at the WSL. Researchers will analyze the gathered data and the well testing results to determine parameters that seem to have most effects on well water quality. Annual workshops will be conducted at UNL to provide students and teachers with feedback, updates, interaction with UNL faculty and staff, and project results.

Once the project is finalized, the potential application of the program to other school districts with verification sampling will be explored in a next phase.

UNL faculty cooperating on the program in addition to Snow include Nebraska Water Center director Chittaranjan Ray, Ashok Samal of UNL’s Department of Computer Science and Engineering, and Matt Kreifels of UNL’s Department of Agricultural Leadership, Education and Communication.

Funding for the project, which began in the late summer of 2016, is through a three-year grant from the Nebraska Environmental Trust.

The WSL and Nebraska Water Center are part of the Robert B. Daugherty Water for Food Global Institute at the University of Nebraska.