Excessive nitrate levels in Wayne water leads to alert

Austin Svehla, Staff Writer

By law, the State of Nebraska requires all cities to test their water and return these samples to the state to assure safe drinking water levels. The state requested a sample from Wayne in November, and soon after, a water warning was issued in Wayne due to high nitrate levels in the water.

However, a miscommunication between the individuals in charge of testing Wayne’s water and the individuals requesting the sample ensued the warning, even though Wayne’s drinking water was never at an unsafe level.

The city has five functioning wells that they use to provide residents with water. Three of these wells are approximately five miles north of town, which provide 90-95% of the city’s water during this time of year, and the other two wells that are near the golf course provide residents with the other 5-10%. During the summer, when water is used more frequently for outside purposes, 75-80% of the water is used from the “north” wells and 20-25% is taken from the “in-town” wells.

“The two wells in town are known to be more problematic,” City Administrator Wes Blecke said. “With the wells north of town, we have no trouble with them whatsoever.”

What the city does is take water from one of the wells in the north and blends it with water from one of the wells in town to create a “point of entry.” This point of entry is supposed to provide a medium between the higher-nitrate in-town wells and the lower-nitrate wells north of town. The legal limit for safe drinking water must not exceed 10 milligrams of nitrate per liter. If at any point the water tested is above this limit, the city is in violation.
On Nov.13, the city of Wayne provided a sample and on Nov. 19, the state returned the results and notified the city that their sample was over the limit and that a retest would be required.

“Our question to them was, are we retesting at the well, which we did the first time, or are we retesting at the point of entry,” Blecke said. “Our water people said the state told us we had to test at the well. Then we received an email, literally the same day after we had already taken the test at the well, that we could take it at the point of entry. If we would’ve taken the test at the point of entry like they were telling us we could via email, we wouldn’t be having this conversation because the tests would have come back fine, and all would be fine.”

The water from the wells with high nitrate levels is impossible to drink, as the only way to access this water is to physically break into the wells and pump the water manually. The water must go through the line that mixes with the other water (point of entry).

“The public was never at risk,” Blecke said. “The water was always blended.”

After the sample with high nitrate levels were submitted, the state notified Wayne that they needed to issue, by law, a notification to residents of Wayne informing them of the recent test results and the possible risks for infants under six months old, mothers that are breastfeeding, and mothers that are expecting. After issuing this warning, the city is required to provide an alternate water supply to assure residents they are drinking water that is safe for consumption, even though the water was never unsafe to drink. The miscommunication resulted in the city still being required to provide this alternate water source.

“They told us that our alternate water supply could be our own water because they knew that the water was never getting to the public without it going through the point of entry,” Blecke said. “I thought that was very difficult for the public to understand, and so we didn’t make that an offer. Instead, we provided bottled water to people, even though we didn’t need to. We didn’t want to confuse the public any further, and we decided to provide this bottled water, which we went through little to nothing of. We went through 10 to12 cases or so of water.”

The tests that the state requires are usually quarterly tests, and these tests are required to assure residents that the water they are drinking is safe, and that there are no health risks to the public. On Dec. 4, the city took another test, this time from the point of entry, and drove the sample to Lincoln. This time, the sample resulted in a 6.68 milligram per liter nitrate level, well below the limit the state mandates.

As for the older wells being used, Blecke noted that if those wells are in existence, the city would like to get some sort of use out of them, while also mentioning that the older wells are always mixed to assure lower nitrate levels. It would also take detailed planning and funding to replace the older wells, although Blecke did not rule out that possibility down the road.

“The city is looking at a new transmission main from the north, so we have a redundancy main,” Blecke said. “Because right now, we have one main coming in, and the water goes through one pipe, so we’re going to put another one in a mile west of the highway. We will talk about putting another well in at that point.”

The state-required tests will continue to be administered regularly, and Wayne residents will always be notified if there is an issue with the drinking water that proposes health risks.

“We have copies and copies of every test we do,” Blecke said. “If the public ever wanted to see any of those, we are more than willing to give out all the information on that. We’re always looking for good water sources.”