Schuyler, NE — The Shell Creek Watershed was officially removed from the Impaired Waters list for significantly reducing the amount of Atrazine, making it the first watershed in Nebraska and the United States to do so from a watershed management plan.
The efforts began nearly 20 years ago, when a group of landowners united to form the Shell Creek Watershed Improvement Group (SCWIG). In 2006, the Shell Creek Watershed was added to the Impaired Waters list due to impairment the Atrazine had on aquatic life. Over time, SCWIG expanded, and now involves more than 240 landowners who implement conservation practices, including cover crops, buffer strips, and no-till among others.
The grassroots efforts paid off 19 years later at Friday’s celebration, but locals are still working every day to maintain and improve the overall conditions of the watershed.
Fred Fehringer, a member of SCWIG, reflected on the prevalent flooding that occurred, which was something Fehringer wanted to get under control. Fehringer and Ray Flood, who is also a member of SCWIG, conversed back and forth about the flooding, recalling memories of the damage.
“At one time, we were getting enough (soil) going through the bridge at Newman Grove to cover a football field in soil…. It has really reduced in the amount,” said Flood.
The reduction is attributed to landowners like Flood and Fehringer, who worked for many years to improve the watershed.
“Ray and I were both born on Shell Creek, and we’re still on Shell Creek. We do want to keep working to ward off the flooding,” Fehringer said.
Nebraska Governor Pete Ricketts attended and commended the local stewards in his opening comments at the celebration.
“This really is an exciting day because it represents what’s best about Nebraska. It represents accomplishments, protecting the environment, and just further demonstrates why we here in Nebraska have the cleanest air, water, and natural resources in the entire country,” said Ricketts.
Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt also made an appearance at the celebration. He highlighted the significance of the de-listing on a national level, and further commended the locals for their conservation efforts.
“One hundred ten miles of this creek that needed remediation, needed clean-up, to get atrazine out. It was not the EPA, it was not government officials who got together and said we need to do something about that. It was landowners in this area, in Nebraska, that said we must take ownership and do something about it,” Pruitt said. “You care more about water quality, you care more about air quality, than any bureaucrat in Washington, D.C.”
Ricketts and Pruitt joined representatives from the Nebraska Department of Environmental Quality, Lower Platte North NRD, USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service, and local students among others, to make the announcement.
Following the announcement, spectators gathered on wooden bridge overlooking the Shell Creek Watershed for chemical test demonstrations from Newman Grove and Schuyler Central High School students who participate in the Shell Creek Watershed Monitoring Program.
Rebecca Stone and Payton Nelson, 2018 Newman Grove graduates, discussed in detail a few of the chemical tests they demonstrated, some of which are time consuming and take over a day to complete.
Abbie Pieke, also a 2018 Newman Grove graduate, emphasized the impact the monitoring program has on past and present students.
“Even though a lot of the kids haven’t gone into a degree or getting a job in natural resources, it helps all of us be better stewards of the land,” said Pieke.
The monitoring program began in 2002, and since has involved 108 students in hands-on science and agriculture-based research projects to help monitor water quality. The students go out to six different sites twice a month in May, June, July, and August to collect water samples and perform nine tests, including pH, nitrates, and turbidity.
The theme at the celebration was clear: had it not been for the patience and persistence of local landowners like Flood and Fehringer, along with support from students and environmental groups, the de-listing and improved conditions of Shell Creek Watershed would not have been possible.
“We did stick together, and it did work,” said Fehringer.