Morrow County declares emergency due to high nitrate levels in wells


Morrow County declared a local state of emergency on Thursday after private well testing showed high levels of nitrate contamination.

At a special meeting, Morrow County commissioners voted 3-0 in favor of the measure, which will allow the county to take immediate action to protect drinking water. This is the first time an Oregon county has declared a state of emergency due to water quality issues.

The county will begin distributing bottled water in the coming days and will install water distribution trailers in Boardman so residents can fill large containers.

Silvia Hernandez’s private well in the outskirts of Boardman, Oregon, April 15, 2022

Monica Samayoa/OPB

Groundwater is the main source of drinking water for Morrow County residents. But this groundwater has been plagued by high levels of nitrates.

The state designated Morrow and Umatilla counties as groundwater management areas more than 30 years ago. A committee has been formed to resolve the issue. and identify activities that contribute to contamination.

But state data shows the nitrate problem has only gotten worse.

“It’s an ongoing problem,” Morrow County Commissioner Chairman Jim Doherty said. “It’s not something that hit us last week, and we approached it from a lot of different angles.”

Drinking high levels of nitrate can lead to respiratory infections, thyroid dysfunction, and stomach or bladder cancer. It can also cause “blue baby syndrome”, which decreases the blood’s ability to carry oxygen, especially in infants who drink formula mixed with contaminated water. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, nitrate levels above 10 milligrams per liter can cause serious health effects.

Earlier this year, the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality fined the Port of Morrow $1.3 million for overapplying 165 tons of nitrogen-rich sewage to fields. farms over a four-year period and for failing to monitor nitrate contamination.

The Port of Morrow released a statement on Thursday saying it is considering millions of dollars in upgrades to reduce pollution and is eager to play a part in finding workable solutions.

Doherty said the fine has brought this issue back into the spotlight and hopes the statement will open doors for funding for more home testing. Doherty went door-to-door with the local health department to test tap water for residents outside the Boardman city limits.

So far, he said they’ve tested about 70 wells that were “high enough to cause some pretty serious health issues.” It also found that some households were unaware that their drinking water was unsafe.

Paul Gray, Morrow County Emergency Manager, said he is now working with the state to help residents get safe drinking water immediately while planning for long-term solutions.

Gray said he wants to do more testing to identify affected locations and install filters in those homes over the next two months. But he said the planning process had just begun and his immediate concern was to provide clean water and continue to educate the public about health issues. He said he asked the Oregon Health Authority to provide a bilingual public information officer to reach Spanish speakers.

A team from Oregon Rural Action is helping the county and tested tap water in about 60 homes in Boardman and Irrigon. The team found nearly all were above the federal drinking water limit and dozens were five times that limit, said Kristin Anderson Ostrom, the group’s executive director. Some residents were unaware of the health effects of consuming high nitrate levels, and most used tap water for washing clothes, showering and cooking.

Zaira Sanchez, ORA’s organizing director, said it was difficult to provide test results.

“The joint response from the community was of immediate shock and concern,” she said. “For example, a family had a reading of 41 milligrams per liter in their water and I asked, ‘What do you think when you see that number or hear it?’ And the common answer was something like “is it high, is it bad?”

Sanchez said some families try to boil their water, but that could make the problem worse. She added that some families were already spending up to $100 a month on bottled water.

Annie Philpott says her family's private well needs to be replaced, but she doesn't have the money to replace it.  The Philpotts were hoping to refinance their home but did not qualify after their well system was tested too high for nitrates.

Annie Philpott says her family’s private well needs to be replaced, but she doesn’t have the money to replace it. The Philpotts were hoping to refinance their home but did not qualify after their well system was tested too high for nitrates.

Monica Samayoa/OPB

ORA board member and former DEQ trustee Mitch Wolgamott, who worked with Anderson Ostrom and Sanchez, said this is the first time elected officials have stepped up and highlighted the issue. But he said the answer doesn’t go far enough.

“It treats the symptoms, it doesn’t really treat the cause of the problem,” he said. “And ultimately that’s what’s going to have to happen is we’re going to have to figure out how to put less nitrogen on the ground or we put it a lot more.”

The Oregon Office of Emergency Management is coordinating with Morrow County to meet residents’ emergency needs. OEM officials said the emergency declaration did not grant immediate access to public funds or other resources, but allowed the county to implement its own emergency procedures. It also prioritizes the need to respond to the public health emergency without superseding the work of the Lower Umatilla Basin Groundwater Management Committee.


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