Twenty Nebraska corn growers are doing their share to ensure safe drinking water for Kansas City residents.

They are part of a new Nebraska Corn Growers Association (NeCGA) program to install conservation buffers in the Blue River Basin Watershed. This basin covers 7,216 square miles in south central and southeastern Nebraska and drains into northeastern Kansas.

The 20 producers, from a 14-county area along the Big and Little Blue rivers, worked with NeCGA personnel in establishing filter strips on their land. The strips are up to 66' wide and average three acres each.

Filter strips intercept field sediment, pesticides and other potential pollutants before they can reach water. These were seeded to native warm-season grasses and were adjusted in size to maximize runoff control, explains Scott Merritt, NeCGA's executive director.

"As evaluated by the University of Nebraska, established filter strips can reduce atrazine levels in runoff by 70%, sediment load by 89%, nitrogen by 75% and reactive phosphorus by 83%," says Merritt. "They also serve as an excellent environment for increasing wildlife habitat."

NeCGA is working with other organizations to use the sites for data collection to add to the statistics already gathered on the effectiveness of filter strips.

The filter strips also serve as demonstration sites.

"We tried to seed the first 20 strips in visible places so folks could see them," explains Merritt. "The strips we seeded last spring aren't very impressive to look at yet, because we're dealing with warm-season native grasses. It takes a couple of years for them to thicken and become highly effective."

The Nebraska growers are contributing to U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Dan Glickman's goal of installing two million miles of filter strips by the year 2002.

Filter strips are one of 18 Best Management Practices (BMPs) NeCGA encourages to improve stewardship of the state's ag resources. Other BMPs include the safe storage of chemicals, proper disposal of pesticide containers, and the use of terraces or contour planting to reduce soil erosion and runoff.

NeCGA leaders plan to add 100 more participants to the program this spring by establishing 20 plots in each of five river basins. Don Vogel, the group's field services representative, evaluates each potential site. The program is not limited to NeCGA members.

With assistance from the Natural Resources Conservation Service, Novartis Seeds and natural resource districts, NeCGA establishes the filter strips and pays all establishment costs.

Growers have the option of being paid the cash-rent equivalent for the use of their land, says Merritt. In 1997, some were paid that full cash-rent equivalent, others only wanted half and some didn't want to get paid at all.

NeCGA recently got a $300,000 grant from the Nebraska Environmental Trust Fund, which consists of a percentage of the state's gambling money. That money will be used to fund expansion of the filter-strip program.