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.

The 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.



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