OHA providing vouchers for free well testing, water treatment

PORTLAND, Ore.— Oregon Health Authority is urging private well users in Umatilla and Morrow counties to take advantage of free water testing and treatment so well users in those counties can know their risk of exposure to nitrate and other contaminants.

Domestic (private) well users who live in parts of Umatilla and Morrow counties that are within the Lower Umatilla Basin Groundwater Management Area, or LUBGWMA, are eligible to apply for water testing vouchers. To be eligible for a free voucher the well water must be used for drinking, bathing, cooking and washing dishes, and the well is not part of a public water system.

“It’s important that everyone in this area of concern who relies on a domestic well finds out whether they are exposed to high nitrates and other common contaminants in their drinking water,” said Gabriela Goldfarb, OHA’s Environmental Public Health Section manager. “Testing is an essential first step that allows OHA to provide well users in Umatilla and Morrow counties access to treatment systems or other alternative sources of water for daily living.”

Testing voucher applications are accepted through May 15 and expire June 7. They cover testing for nitrate, arsenic, bacteria, lead, iron, manganese and hardness. Applications are available at http://bit.ly/3xzx1cp. They also can be accessed from OHA’s LUBGWMA page in both English and Spanish.

As of today, 38 testing vouchers have been distributed in Morrow County and one in Umatilla County. Most were submitted following a March 11 event organized by Morrow County Public Health and community-based organization Oregon Rural Action. Volunteers went door to door to promote well water testing, distribute OHA well testing voucher applications and collect water samples.

Morrow County conducted extensive water testing after issuing a June 2022 domestic well water emergency declaration; Umatilla County has also made testing available to residents. OHA is working closely with the counties to use existing test results to identify households at risk and offer treatment and, where treatment is not adequate, provide alternative water supplies with support from the Oregon Department of Human Services. End-of-tap treatment systems are not effective when nitrate levels are above 25 milligrams per liter (mg/L), or may not produce enough water to meet the needs of larger households.

There are an estimated 4,500 wells used for drinking water in the LUBGWMA. Some wells serve multiple households. OHA estimates about 80% of the wells are in Umatilla County and 20% are in Morrow County.

OHA’s testing and treatment effort is funded through June 2023 by a $881,987 Legislative Emergency Board allocation, which pays for 800 tests and 84 reverse-osmosis treatment systems. Gov. Tina Kotek’s budget request this year includes resources that would extend funding for this work into the 2023-2025 biennium.

OHA will soon begin providing vouchers for in-home treatment systems for certain households with private well water. Those that have tested at or above 10 mg/L, the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) maximum recommended contaminant level for the compound in drinking water, may be eligible for treatment or provision of water for household use.

The LUBGWMA is an area that spans the northern portions of Morrow and Umatilla counties along the Columbia River, and encompasses the cities of Hermiston, Boardman, Irrigon, Stanfield, Echo and nearby unincorporated areas. The Oregon Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) and Oregon Department of Agriculture (ODA) designated the LUBGWMA in 1990 under Oregon’s groundwater Quality Protection Act of 1989 due to regional nitrate-nitrogen concentrations in groundwater that exceeded 7 mg/L.

Here is what different nitrate levels mean: The federal Safe Drinking Water Act defines high nitrate as a level exceeding 10 mg/L.

  • Nitrate up to 10 mg/L is SAFE for all uses.
  • Nitrate between 11 mg/L and 40 mg/L is NOT SAFE to drink for infants who rely on baby formula, children younger than 3, or women who are or may become pregnant, or to use for tooth brushing in children younger than 3. It is SAFE to drink short term, up to a year, by people 3 and older (except pregnant women), pets and livestock. It is SAFE for other domestic uses, including bathing, washing dishes, laundry and garden irrigation.
  • Nitrate above 40 mg/L is NOT SAFE for drinking. It is SAFE for other domestic uses, including bathing, washing dishes, laundry and garden irrigation.

OHA has additional information about nitrate in a fact sheet posted on its website in English and Spanish.