The quest for better water quality in Norfolk and Northeast Nebraska is getting an assist from the Norfolk Public Schools’ Aftershock program.
Aftershock students are teaming up with the University of Nebraska Medical Center and the University of Nebraska at Lincoln to test water quality in the Elkhorn River and the North Fork Elkhorn River beginning Wednesday.
Next week will be the first of three two-week periods where students will test eight areas along the North Fork Elkhorn River, the Elkhorn River near Ta-Ha-Zouka Park and where the two rivers meet. Two more rounds of testing will take place in August and October.
“One of our biggest drawbacks is the public’s perception of the water,” said Tony Stuthman, president of North Fork Outfitting and a sponsor of Aftershock. “Most of the people think of it as a drainage ditch and they think of the water as nasty, brown and muddy-looking — and nobody really thinks it’s pleasant.”
Students will dip testing strips into the water and the strips will change color according to what is in the water. Stuthman hopes to get eight students participating for each period of testing. The testing will then be submitted to the university, who will create a map of nitrate contamination for the public.
“Our goal is to be able to bring ... water quality to the public’s attention so that we can let people know what they can do to change if there are problems with the water quality,” Stuthman said. “There are definitely ways that the public can improve it — being careful about keeping your sidewalk clean when you fertilize, not blowing your grass clippings into the street and that type of thing. That all affects the nitrates in the water.”
Nitrates are a major water-quality issue for many reasons, said Jonathan Ali, a UNMC graduate student who is involved with the project.
“Nitrates can have an adverse effect on your body’s ability to carry oxygen in the same way that having carbon monoxide in your body is bad for your ability to carry oxygen,” Ali said. “Nitrates can have a similar effect — not as potent as carbon monoxide, but this is why one of the (problems) caused by excessive nitrate consumption from drinking water is called blue-baby syndrome.”
Ali said that the goal of the project is to create a map of water quality in eastern Nebraska to learn where nitrate contamination exists and how much it does. He added that the general public can also participate in the testing.
“This is a novel approach for us going around measuring water quality,” Ali said. “If you think about what the state does or what the universities have traditionally done, it’s ivory-tower science where we pick a small number of spots, we go in with our expensive equipment, we get results and they slowly get communicated back to the public. What we’re doing with this project is called citizen science, where we’re actually trying to engage the communities in collecting that data and in first-hand seeing...the results that they’re getting from their back yard.”
More than that, it will give Aftershock students a chance to get some hands-on learning.
“We thought we would get these students involved — and some learning experience too,” Stuthman said. “This way, the students will actually do the tests, they’ll record the data then I’ll send it up to the university, they’ll compile all the data and put their (results) out.”