Watching Out for Oregon’s Well Water

Guest blog by Amy Patton, Hydrogeologist in Southern Oregon

In the United States, we expect that when we turn on our tap at home, clean, potable water will come out – water that we can drink, cook with, and bathe in without consequence.  This is mostly a reasonable expectation – if you are supplied by a public water system that is regularly tested and overseen by the health department.

For many of Oregon’s 660,000 rural residents, however, it is important to realize that if you are not paying attention to your water quality, no one is.

In 1989, the legislature attempted to assist new rural home buyers by requiring testing of drinking water wells for nitrate and bacteria at property transfer; arsenic was later added to the list of required tests. The database of test results has allowed identification of areas of nitrate contamination (generally as a result of fertilizer, manure or septic system leaching) and where arsenic is present.  Bacteria contamination is also common, but generally a result of a more localized source.

In recent years, as a hydrogeologist, I have conducted 21 targeted public education presentations relating to water quality protection for over 850 rural residents in Jackson and Josephine Counties.  With the help of agency partners and volunteers, over 750 wells were tested for nitrate, many for the first time.

Although most residents find no nitrate contamination in their wells, about 20% of the wells tested showed some level of nitrate contamination.  And there are always a few wells (4-5%) that have nitrate above the drinking water standard set by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

Those are always the toughest conversations.  Our events are set up so that well owners drop off their samples and either watch the educational presentation or go about their business (at a garden fair, perhaps) and then retrieve their test results later.  

Last spring, one young family came up, babe in arms and another in a stroller, to pick up their results.  When I looked at the test results, my face fell.  Their results had tested off the charts – higher than our equipment could even register.  And they had an infant – the most vulnerable population for high nitrate – susceptible even to death – since nitrate can decrease the ability of the blood to carry oxygen to tissues.  I began by telling them that the nitrate concentrations in their well water were excessively high and that they should stop drinking and cooking with the water immediately.  I warned them that their children were at greatest risk from nitrate ingestion and explained that this can cause Methemoglobinemia, or blue-baby syndrome, in infants.  The young father turned pale and asked “is that why our baby’s fingertips and lips were turning blue this winter?” Then I paled.  Those are exactly the symptoms I have always heard were a possible result of high nitrate ingestion.  We talked some more and he explained that he had thought the baby was cold and covered him with blankets – but that wasn’t what he wanted.  They were very lucky they didn’t lose the baby – probably because the mother nursed for his first 6 months and the effects of nitrate are reduced through that process.  The symptoms had begun when the baby started on formula.  Now, the parents are worried that the baby’s low growth rate may have been a side effect and hope that his brain has developed normally.

Frustratingly, this family, and several other families to whom I have had to pass on the bad news of high nitrate contamination of their water supply, are renting.  The landlords, either through ignorance or negligence, have not tested their tenant’s drinking water wells or not supplied them with information about the test results.  The tenants had a right to expect they would be provided potable water when they rented a rural home.  Some, located close to town, may not have even known that the house was on a well and not supplied by the city.

County MapThe Oregon Environmental Council recognizes this issue as a social justice, environmental protection, and environmental health issue and has worked with legislators, public health organizations and rural landowners to craft a bill that would require landlords to provide well testing information to tenants at the start of a lease.  

The bill – HB 2404 – also requires the Oregon Health Authority to provide public education in areas with area-wide contamination and creates a fund to assist low income property owners and landlords to install treatment systems or make repairs to improve drinking water quality.  If passed, well-funded, and judiciously implemented, this bill will do much to prevent the unknowing ingestion of contaminated drinking water in the future, benefitting thousands of Oregonians.

HB 2404 is currently in committee with a public hearing expected soon.


Related Posts
Filter by
Post Page
Water News Featured Water Conservation Rural Partnerships Agriculture Air Quality Climate Protection OCAP-Page Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Toxic Free Priorities OCAP News People Toxics-Free Environments Policy OEC News/Updates/Events Media/PR/Statements
Sort by

What we’re watching: Water

NOTE: This blog has been updated with the status of each bill as of the end of the 2019 Legislative Session. Read OEC’s 2019 legislative wrap-up here. April marked the first major deadline for bills moving forward in the Oregon Legislature this year and the midway point of the 2019 session. Of more than 2,700 bills and r
April 25, 2019, 10:10 pm


Road-trips, Representatives and Adventures in Eastern Oregon

Summer is road-trip time, and recently, OEC staff Karen Lewotsky (Water Policy and Rural Partnerships Director) and Morgan Gratz-Weiser (Legislative Director) headed southeast across Oregon to Crane, with stops along the way in Tumalo and Prineville. Why Crane? The gathering in Crane was organized by leading legislators and partner organizations Verde, Willamette
September 10, 2021, 8:24 pm


New report elevates water justice in Oregon

A new report from the Oregon Water Futures Project reveals water challenges facing communities across the state, from water shortages, to living with unsafe water, watching sacred ecosystems disappear, and critical information gaps about clean water during emergencies. The report highlights key findings from community
September 2, 2021, 11:10 pm


Strengthening Oregon’s Climate Protection Program

The Oregon Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) is getting closer to finalizing rules for a new Climate Protection Program. Over the past year, DEQ has made a number of positive changes to strengthen the rules; however, a few key policy design features still hang in the
August 31, 2021, 10:07 pm


silhouette of person in tractor working a field

Centering Frontline Voices: Oregon OSHA Enacts Heat & Smoke Rules

In a summer already marked by unprecedented temperatures and a devastating wildfire season, OEC and its partners pressed Oregon Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) to adopt a health-first standard when it comes to protecting vulnerable workers from climate hazards. As part of EO-20-04 (OCAP), Governor Kate Brown directed Oregon OSHA to develop standards in order to protect frontline workers from excessive heat
August 11, 2021, 3:57 pm


Oregon OSHA Enacts Emergency Heat Rules

A Joint Press Release – July 8, 2021 Contacts: Ira Cuello-Martinez, PCUN, (503) 851-5774 Kate Suisman, Northwest Justice Workers Project
July 13, 2021, 6:19 pm


Oregon Climate Action Plan: 2021 Progress Report

March 26, 2021, 12:11 am


Celebrating Year 1 of the Oregon Climate Action Plan

March 10, 2021, 7:51 pm


Statement on Protecting Oregon’s Democratic Process

Today, Oregon Environmental Council sent a strong statement to Oregon’s legislative leadership
January 21, 2021, 10:49 pm


OHA Report: Climate Crisis a Current and Growing Threat to the Health of Oregonians

The Oregon Health Authority (OHA) just released its “Climate and Health in Oregon 2020” report, documenting the public health impacts from climate change across Oregon. The report is the first thorough analysis of the health effects of climate change in Oregon since 2014, and is the first of three OHA deliverables directed under EO 20-04, the Oregon Climate Action Plan. The report findings are grim, confirming what OEC has been saying all along– that climate change is a public he
January 5, 2021, 8:15 pm


3 Replies to "Watching Out for Oregon’s Well Water"

  • Andy P Lushenko
    April 29, 2018 (7:02 pm)

    I live in Saint Paul, Oregon and for the last several months (10) have noticed the water has smelled very Bad, Saint Paul is on well water and has been for decades. I have learned that the City well is in much !!!!!!!!! need to be cleaned and it has been more then twenty plus yrs since the well was cleaned and the lining of the well is in bad shape. I’m not sure if the local Government leadership is going to take any action. It appears the well issue is in conflict with the City Council.

    The fact that the Well Water smells so badly !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! and the Well is in need of cleaning!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! thought you Flok’s might be interested.

  • Know what’s in your well | Oregon Environmental Council
    March 28, 2019 (5:47 pm)

    […] infants because their digestive and enzyme systems are not fully developed. High levels of nitrates can cause infants to suffer from “Blue Baby Syndrome,” which decreases the ability of blood to carry oxygen and can be […]

  • What we're watching: Water | Oregon Environmental Council
    April 26, 2019 (7:30 pm)

    […] have the right to know what’s in your water. Domestic well water can be contaminated by bacteria, nitrates, and arsenic, among other things—all of which can have serious health impacts. In reality, most […]