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Harvest Public Media is a reporting collaboration focused on issues of food, fuel and field. Based at KCUR in Kansas City, Harvest covers these agriculture-related topics through an expanding network of reporters and partner stations throughout the Midwest.Most Harvest Public Media stories begin with radio- regular reports are aired on member stations in the Midwest. But Harvest also explores issues through online analyses, television documentaries and features, podcasts, photography, video, blogs and social networking. They are committed to the highest journalistic standards. Click here to read their ethics standards.Harvest Public Media was launched in 2010 with the support of a grant from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Today, the collaboration is supported by CPB, the partner stations, and contributions from underwriters and individuals.Tri States Public Radio is an associate partner of Harvest Public Media. You can play an important role in helping Harvest Public Media and Tri States Public Radio improve our coverage of food, field and fuel issues by joining the Harvest Network. Learn more here.

Watch: Small Towns Look for Unique Solutions to Agricultural Water Pollution

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Brian Seifferlein/Harvest Public Media
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Marty Stange, the environmental supervisor in Nebraska, speaks with Harvest Public Media’s Grant Gerlock about city of Hastings’ plan to ensure clean drinking water. ";s:

When farmers put nitrogen fertilizer on their fields, it soaks down into the soil and turns into nitrates that feed crops. But when there are too many nitrates, water from rain or irrigation carries those extra nutrients past the point where roots can reach and eventually to the aquifer below.

For the cities and towns that depend on the underground aquifer or surface water for their drinking water, that can be a big problem.

On the High Plains Aquifer in Nebraska, for instance, there are pockets of nitrates pushing far, past the legal limit of 10 parts per million. In central Nebraska, a pocket of high nitrate water is flowing right toward the wells where the city of Hastings draws its drinking water.

“They get up to the 50 part per million range,” says Marty Stange, the environmental supervisor for Hasting’s utilities system. “They’re five times the drinking water standard. Those are really areas of high concern for us.”

Too many nitrates are a health hazard, particularly for infants whose blood can lose its ability to absorb oxygen. So nitrates must be reduced or removed, but cleaning nitrates from the city’s water is a huge expense. When nitrate levels rise above the safe drinking water limit, Des Moines, Iowa, fires up a filtering system that costs thousands of dollars to operate each day. That’s rarely possible for small cities and towns dotting farm country.

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Stange and his team have designed a unique line of defense. They’re using wells strategically placed on the outskirts of town to act as a filter for the aquifer, skimming off nitrates as they move toward the city.

Nitrates tend to collect on the top of the aquifer. So unlike most wells, this one pumps from the top, middle, and bottom all at once in order to dilute high-nitrate water.

Clean water will be pumped back down into the aquifer so the high nitrates never reach the wells that supply Hastings residents and high-nitrate water leftover from the cleanup will be used to irrigate and fertilize an alfalfa field.

“As the plants are growing, they will consume up those nitrates,” Stange said. “We’re going to take lemons and make lemonade basically.”

The city of Hastings will spend $46 million to build the system, Stange says, which is a big hit to a city of just 25,000 people.