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Committee turns to state for help on groundwater nitrates

A committee seeking to lower nitrate levels in groundwater is reaching out to Oregon Solutions for help.
George Plaven

East Oregonian

Published on January 24, 2017 5:32PM

A volunteer committee grappling with groundwater contamination in the Lower Umatilla Basin is reaching out to the state for additional help.

The Lower Umatilla Basin Groundwater Management Area, or LUBGWMA, was declared in 1990 due to elevated levels of nitrates in groundwater. Nitrates come from a variety of sources, though the primary culprit is fertilizer, according to the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality.

The advisory committee is charged with writing a new action plan designed to curb the level of groundwater nitrates in the area, which spans 550 square miles and encompasses six communities in Umatilla and Morrow counties: Hermiston, Stanfield, Echo, Umatilla, Boardman and Irrigon.

The committee reached out to Oregon Solutions in October, a program that serves at the pleasure of the governor’s office to leverage state resources for local projects. On Monday, Oregon Solutions staff met with the committee in Hermiston and said they hoped to finish assessing the group’s proposal by next month.

Pete Dalke, senior project manager for Oregon Solutions, said they are trying to get more specific feedback from committee members, such as major issues posed by groundwater nitrates and the urgency to address the situation immediately.

“It’s hard for us to engage if there isn’t some driver, or some timeline,” Dalke said. “You’ve got to help us with what we need to bring to you to help you move forward.”

Tamra Mabbott, Umatilla County planning director, said the Groundwater Management Area is affecting economic development by preventing some businesses from building or expanding.

“There are businesses that want to come in that can’t locate here, even if they have enough water, because of limitations of land application of wastewater,” Mabbott said. “I think there’s a whole host of things that would warrant Oregon Solutions, if they could help the group.”

Oregon’s Groundwater Protection Act requires DEQ to declare a Groundwater Management Area if contamination exceeds certain levels. In the case of nitrates, the trigger is 7 milligrams per liter, or 70 percent of the federal drinking water standard.

The Lower Umatilla Basin came to exceed that mark through a number of different land uses, though DEQ says an overwhelming majority of those leached nitrates — 81.6 percent — come from the region’s vast irrigated farms. Pastures make up another 8.1 percent, and food processors account for 4.6 percent.

An action plan was developed in 1997 with voluntary actions to reduce nitrates, though after 20 years the results have been mixed. DEQ data shows nitrates are still increasing overall in the basin, though not as sharply as in years past.

The LUBGWMA committee is now working on a second action plan, which chairman Clive Kaiser said is nearly ready for peer review. Kaiser, an extension horticulturist for Oregon State University in Milton-Freewater, said he feels Oregon Solutions could help them put their plan into action.

“I think there was enough positive feedback in the meeting (Monday),” Kaiser said. “It should resonate that this is a definite need.”

In a previous interview with the East Oregonian, Phil Richerson, hydrogeologist for DEQ in Pendleton, said it will likely take decades to realize the necessary, basin-wide improvement. Changes in agricultural practices and technology, including more efficient watering and fertilizing, have helped, but Richerson said there is still work to do.

“I think there’s room for improvement,” Richerson said.

The basin is also bracing for potentially more mitigated irrigation water available from the Columbia River, which would add even more farmland to Eastern Oregon.

Dealing with groundwater can be a difficult task, Richerson said, since the resource is often out of sight and out of mind.

“I do think we’ll be able to find a solution,” he said. “It’s a complicated thing.”


Contact George Plaven at gplaven@eastoregonian.com or 541-966-0825.


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