SALEM — Oregon lawmakers will consider a bill during the upcoming legislative session aimed at curbing elevated levels of groundwater nitrates in the Lower Umatilla Basin.
State Sen. Bill Hansell, R-Athena, recently introduced Senate Bill 1562, which calls for the Oregon Department of Agriculture to form a new task force that would review existing data and recommend solutions to the area’s decades-old groundwater problem.
The Lower Umatilla Basin in Northeast Oregon is home to some of the state’s most productive farmland, with thousands of grazing cattle and vast fields of irrigated crops. But rising levels of groundwater nitrates could pose a public health threat if left unchecked.
Regulators declared the Lower Umatilla Basin Groundwater Management Area in 1990 to identify and mitigate sources of nitrogen contamination, including from agricultural operations.
Hansell, whose Senate district includes the 550-square-mile management area spanning parts of Umatilla and Morrow counties, said his bill builds on work that is already being done in the basin. It allocates $250,000 to ODA for the interagency task force that would evaluate strategies for reducing groundwater nitrates.
“It will go directly to the Umatilla Basin,” Hansell said. “We’re not asking for a multi-groundwater study throughout the state.”
The task force would include representatives of ODA and the state Department of Environmental Quality, as well as two members of the local management area committee and three members at large — one of whom must be a farmer or rancher with experience irrigating and fertilizing cropland.
Hansell said the funding was originally proposed in ODA’s 2019-21 budget.
“There was no opposition to it, but it did not get funded,” Hansell said. “It was brought to my attention how important that would have been to the Umatilla Basin.”
Tests of groundwater wells show nitrates in parts of the management area exceed the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s “maximum contaminate level” of 10 milligrams per liter. Exposure to such high levels of nitrates and nitrites in food and drinking water may be linked to a condition called methemoglobinemia, or a decreased ability of blood to carry oxygen in the body, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
J.R. Cook, founder and director of the Northeast Oregon Water Association, said Hansell’s bill directs the task force to study groundwater connectivity in the basin, which in turn will lead to more targeted, site-specific solutions for reducing nitrates.
“There’s been a ton of work in the (management area) to identify each and every potential contributor and develop game plans for each of those nutrient loads,” Cook said. “But what we need to do is get into a task force and then break it out by aquifer, because what we can do to manage (nitrates) in one area isn’t going to be a fix for another area.”
The proposal comes as activists with eight groups and one individual filed a petition with the EPA on Jan. 16 requesting emergency action in the management area. Among other measures, the petition asks the federal government to ban any new confined animal feeding operations, or CAFOs, in the basin, such as the Easterday Farms Dairy near Boardman.
The petition was signed by Food and Water Watch, Friends of Family Farmers, WaterWatch of Oregon, Columbia Riverkeeper, Humane Voters Oregon, the Animal Legal Defense Fund, Center for Food Safety, Center for Biological Diversity and Eileen Laramore, a resident of Hermiston.
Nitrates are found in most fertilizers and manure, which are frequently applied to cropland in the area. The activists’ petition claims CAFOs are a primary contributor to elevated groundwater nitrates.
Ten CAFOs are currently permitted in the basin with a combined 148,000 animals, according to the petition. Easterday Farms Dairy would add 28,300 cattle if approved by the state.
“Mega-dairies externalize their significant public health and environmental costs to the people of Oregon, and if our state legislators cannot protect Oregonians, we must enforce our federal laws to protect community drinking water,” said Amy van Saun, an attorney with the Center for Food Safety.
Critics, however, say the groups used generalized and cherrypicked data to target one specific industry.
While Cook acknowledges there are “hot spots” of elevated nitrates in the basin, he said there is no “smoking gun” that suggests dairies or farms are entirely to blame. Contamination comes from multiple sources, he said, including legacy pollution from past land uses dating back to the 1940s and 1950s.
“Some of these areas have shown significant improvement, if you localize the data under best management practices and voluntary measures,” Cook said.
The goal now should be fixing the problem, Cook said, not arguing over whose fault it is.
“If you get rid of CAFOs, the nitrate problem is not going to magically go away,” Cook said. “If you get rid of irrigated agriculture, it’s not going to magically go away.”