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
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


People charging an electric car

Electrifying Oregon’s Local Economies

The transition to electric vehicles – which dramatically cut air and climate pollution – is clearly underway. Global and national automakers are planning to phase out gas and diesel engines, spurred by national and state mandates to convert all new car sales to 100% electric as soon as 2035. The federal government and private sector companies are making huge investments in a national EV charging network. To ensure small local businesses and the neighborhoods they serve also benefit fro
November 20, 2023, 10:43 am


Nora Apter, senior program director for climate at the Oregon Environmental Council speaking at the pro-CPP Rally in Salem on September, 29, 2023.

Voices of Support: Defending Oregon’s Climate Protection Program

On September 29, 2023, OEC gathered with a growing coalition of community-based organizations, lawmakers, and business groups following oral arguments heard by the Oregon Court of Appeals to rally behind the Oregon Climate Protection Program (CPP), which is under attack from the fossil fuel industry. OREGON’S CLIMATE PROTECTION PROGRAM Oregon’s Climate Protection Program (CPP) is a cornerstone in our st
October 23, 2023, 1:43 pm


Front of a schoolbus (above the engine/grill) with clouds above, and reflecting in the windows a bit. The bus is parked among others in the lot.

Oregon’s Report Card: The Urgent Need for Transportation Investment

Everyone deserves the right to safe, accessible, climate-friendly transportation options. And everyone deserves to arrive at their destination safely, regardless of their transportation choice. Yet the need for investments in transportation safety could not be more urgent as this year’s back-to-school season is met with a 40-year peak in pedestrian deaths, nationwide. 
September 21, 2023, 11:42 am


Renewable Northwest Executive Director, Nicole Hughes, and OEC Senior Program Director for Climate, Nora Apter, welcome 20 representatives from 15 advocacy organizations to the Oregon Clean Grid Collaborative kick-off.

Celebrating the launch of the “Oregon Clean Grid Collaborative”

Authors: Nora Apter, Senior Program Director for Climate, OEC; Nicole Hughes, Executive Director, Renewable Northwest
September 11, 2023, 4:15 pm


Oregon Advocates Celebrate First Anniversary of the Federal Inflation Reduction Act: A Year of Achievements and Future Opportunities for Progress

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE August 16, 2023 Media Contact: Patty Wentz, 503-970-7929 As Oregon experiences record breaking heat driven by climate change, it is important to note the one-year anniversary of the historic Inflation Reduction Act (IRA), which will invest at least $370 billion–and potentially upwards of $1 trillion–nationwide to a
August 16, 2023, 11:51 am


Sweeping Environmental Wins in Oregon’s 2023 Legislative Session

At the end of the 2023 Oregon Legislative Session, OEC is proud to have secured several major policy victories that will benefit Oregonians and our shared environment. Thanks to our coalition partners, supporters, and legislative champions, the Oregon legislature delivered critical action to reduce climate and air pollution, support healthy, affordable, resilient communities, and leverage once-in-a-lifetime federal funding for clean energy and clean water infrastructure. Healthy
June 29, 2023, 11:40 am


Windmills over green terrain

Climate Win! Oregon Lawmakers Take Powerful Action Passing the ‘Climate Resilience Package’

Oregon’s 2023 Legislative Session ended with a momentous victory in the fight against climate change with the passage of the bipartisan Climate Resilience Package (HB 3409 & HB 3630). With over $90 million in funding and strategic leveraging of federal investments, this victory represents significant progress in our relentless pursuit of a climate-resilient future for Oregon.
June 29, 2023, 11:13 am


Huge Wins for Public Health! Oregon Lawmakers Act to Keep Toxic Chemicals Out of Cosmetics and Kids’ Products

In a resounding victory for the health and well-being of Oregonians, Oregon Environmental Council and coalition partners successfully advocated for the passage of two crucial environmental health bills in the 2023 legislative session.  Despite facing staunch opposition from the chemical industry, our coalition’s unwavering commitment and tenacity paid off, as we se
June 27, 2023, 2:46 pm


Oregon Health Authority Report Finds Devastating Public Health Impacts from Climate Change in Oregon, Underscoring Urgent Need for Legislative Action to Pass the Climate Resilience Package

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE June 22, 2023 Media Contact Kat Driessen, PORTLAND, Ore. — The Oregon Health Authority today released a comprehensive report on the public health impacts of climate change in Oregon. The “2021-2022 Climate and Health in Oregon Rep
June 22, 2023, 11:00 am


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 […]