Project Timeline

Infographic showing timeline of project
  • 2016 – grant submitted to Nebraska Environmental Trust
  • 2017 – project funded and begins in four Nebraska high schools
  • 2018 – program expands to six more high schools
  • 2019 – ten high schools round out year of phase one
  • 2020 – phase two begins in five high schools within Bazille Groundwater Management Area
  • 2021 – additional grants submitted with goals of reaching students and teachers in over 50 schools who will test over 1,000 domestic wells in the state of Nebraska

Phase One

Know Your Well: Trickledown Effects of Hands-On Water Education

Olson training students

Highlights:

  • 160 Nebraska youth from 19 schools across the state learned to collect and test groundwater samples from domestic wells.
  • In addition to building science literacy, this matters because 85% of Nebraska residents rely on groundwater as their source of drinking water.
  • The University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s Water Sciences Lab provided student and teacher training and analysis of all water samples.

Eighty-five percent of Nebraskans rely on groundwater as their source of drinking water. Furthermore, one in five residents gets drinking water from private wells that are seldom tested for contaminants. So how does one know what comes out of the tap and if it’s healthy? For the past three years, the Water Sciences Laboratory’s Know Your Well program offered an answer: train hundreds of Nebraska high schoolers to become groundwater quality sleuths.

From 2017 to 2020, the Nebraska Environmental Trust-funded program empowered these young citizen scientists to sample and test well water quality in their communities. In all, 19 Nebraska high schools participated – from Crawford in the Sandhills to Auburn in the extreme southeast – collecting analytes like pH, conductivity, ammonia, atrazine, calcium, E. coli, iron and nitrate. Students collected and analyzed water and then compared results with duplicate samples sent to WSL water scientists. The results were then shared with well owners for their benefit.

As the program’s manager, Christopher Olson drove roughly twenty thousand miles to meet students and teachers in participating schools and help them understand and share in the science of groundwater and drinking water. According to Olson, who graduated in 2020 with a master’s in natural resource sciences, while citizen science projects help scientists collect data in higher quantities than they could on their own, the benefits transcend testing and student education.

“This program helps water users understand what’s going on in their own communities without preaching to them,” Olson explained. “That means people are more likely to understand the problems and help implement treatment – it gives everyone an opportunity to be a part of the solutions.”

A side-effect of the program is the cultivation of important life skills. Faith Santana, a McCool Junction, Nebraska native, participated in the program as a high school senior. She’s now a sophomore political science major at UNL. “It really played an important role in my high school career,” Santana said. “It helped me develop critical thinking skills and the idea that we have to be lifelong learners.”

Phase Two: Project Citizen Science

Monitoring well

Lincoln, NE – July 27, 2020 – The Board of Regents of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln announced today that it will receive $86,939 from the Nebraska Environmental Trust for the “Citizen Science: A valuable approach for monitoring groundwater quality in the Bazile Groundwater Management Area” project. The Trust Board announced funding for the project at its meeting on June 11, 2020 in Lincoln. The project is one of the 118 projects receiving $20,000,000 in grant awards from the Nebraska Environmental Trust this year. Of these, 73 were new applications and 45 are carry-over projects.

The Bazile Groundwater Management Area (BGMA) represents the first groundwater-focused management plan in the nation to address nonpoint source pollution. Collection of shallow domestic well-water quality data is a promising management practice for identifying water quality problems and protecting ground water quality, especially for domestic self-supplied households’ drinking water needs, in areas at risk for nitrate contamination. We propose to involve high school students and their teacher advisors to conduct a two-year monitoring project focusing on groundwater quality. The current study will increase groundwater awareness among high school students and their families in the BGMA, and train teachers and students to effectively conduct groundwater quality data collection. Five high schools, Wausa, Orchard, Creighton, Plainview, and Osmond, located within the BGMA will participate in the study. FFA chapters and science clubs will participate in the study. Approximately 30 rural wells per school will be identified by the students in collaboration with the four Natural Resources Districts. Basic water quality parameters (i.e., pH, electrical conductivity), major anions/cations (i.e., nitrate, nitrite, phosphate, calcium), metals (i.e. uranium, iron, arsenic), pesticides, and bacteria will be tested using field test kits and laboratory methods.

The Nebraska Legislature created the Nebraska Environmental Trust in 1992. Using revenue from the Nebraska Lottery, the Trust has provided over $328 million in grants to over 2,300 projects across the state. Anyone – citizens, organizations, communities, farmers and businesses – can apply for funding to protect habitat, improve water quality and establish recycling programs in Nebraska. The Nebraska Environmental Trust works to preserve, protect and restore our natural resources for future generations.

Phase Three

Schumacher training students

Far from ending, the Know Your Well project is being reimagined.

In 2020, a dynamic consortium of Natural Resource Districts (NRD), state agencies, and multiple University of Nebraska campuses submitted a $656,000 grant application to the Nebraska Environmental Trust to expand the project. That proposal – which ultimately was not selected – envisioned a larger and more impactful project by:

  • Utilizing information and education staff at 12 NRDs across Nebraska to facilitate student and teacher training of project curriculum.
  • Improving communication, increasing participation, and collecting adequate data to deliver high-quality domestic well data to residents.
  • Expanding the program’s footprint to include 50 Nebraska high schools, engage 500 students and sample 1,000 wells. 
  • Sending duplicate samples to the University of Nebraska’s Water Sciences Laboratory for validation of results.

The project team will resubmit the grant proposal to NET this fall and final awards are announced in spring 2022.

Research Team

View the research team that created the Know Your Well project.