Local Perspectives: Lower Umatilla Basin

​​​​This local perspective comes from the Advisory Report: State Leadership Must Take Action to Protect Water Security for All Oregonians​​

​​​In summer 2022, the Audits Division spoke with five Morrow County and City of Boardman community members with the assistance of Oregon Rural Action (ORA), a community-led organization based in Eastern Oregon. Nineteen community members also provided written statements with the assistance of ORA detailing their personal experiences and concerns with nitrate impacted groundwater. Most of their domestic wells that have recently tested above federal safe drinking water standards for nitrates. ORA provided the following overview of the problem.

  1. Community members whose wells have recently tested high for nitrates in the Lower Umatilla Basin were unaware they may have been exposed for decades to toxic drinking water and had little to no information to protect themselves and their families.
  2. Community members identified health concerns related to exposure to nitrates.
  3. Community members need access safe drinking water for basic uses including drinking, cooking, and oral hygiene.
  4. The scope and severity of the water insecurity problem in the Lower Umatilla Basin is unknown including the universe of domestic drinking water wells in the region, the number of wells and households impacted, and the efforts required to secure immediate and long-term access to safe drinking water in the region.
8 people stand in front of a building with packages of bottled water.
Rural Boardman neighborhood meeting and Morrow County’s first emergency bottled water delivery, June 2022 | Source: Oregon Rural Action​​

Though the region’s public water systems are regulated to meet federal safe drinking water standards, poor groundwater quality is an urgent concern to the portion of the population that relies on private or small community wells to provide water for domestic uses. The Lower Umatilla Basin, which includes parts of Umatilla and Morrow counties, is home to a large, growing, and diverse community of agricultural workers. Compared to the state as a whole, the demographics of Morrow and Umatilla Counties are more ethnically diverse with a higher representation of people who identify as Hispanic or Latino and a higher poverty rate. These communities have long lived in the area and work in agriculture - the region’s economic engine and a primary source of the nitrate pollution. Access to information in culturally relevant languages and platforms is a barrier to addressing water insecurity.

Communities in the region have experienced groundwater degradation for decades. In 1990, the state established the Lower Umatilla Basin Groundwater Management Area (LUBGWMA) due to high concentrations of nitrates in the groundwater. The LUBGWMA committee is comprised mostly of representatives from cities, districts, and industry in the region. Two voluntary LUBGWMA action plans, released in 1997 and 2020, have failed to meet the state-required goal of less than 7 mg/L of nitrates (the EPA limit is 10 mg/L).

Community members shared they were largely unaware of the nitrate concerns with their groundwater until spring 2022. At that time, Morrow County partnered with ORA to begin testing domestic drinking wells, reporting the results back to communities, and providing factsheets on nitrates in English and Spanish. In June 2022 Morrow County declared an emergency based on the testing results and began free water distribution. As of September 2022, ORA and Morrow County had tested 485 household wells, with more than 200 wells testing above federal safe drinking water limits for nitrates. Well testing has since expanded to Umatilla County.

In 2020, the EPA encouraged the Oregon Health Authority, Department of Environmental Quality, and Oregon Department of Agriculture to develop and implement a workplan to protect residents from nitrate-contaminated water following a petition to take emergency action. The EPA requested a more detailed plan in 2022, clarifying that the plan must include “an adequate response plan to address the immediate health risks” in the Lower Umatilla Basin. Since then, roughly $882,000 has been allocated to the Oregon Health Authority by the state’s Emergency Board to address health risks caused by excessive nitrate levels in domestic wells. A detailed plan is not yet available.

According to ORA, their organization and local community members urgently support implementing a workplan that addresses immediate community needs for safe water and the following minimum components outlined by the EPA: a coordinated plan among state and local governments and private entities; a hazard assessment identifying each impacted resident; public education and outreach; water testing at no cost; the provision of alternative water needed for drinking, cooking, oral hygiene and dishwashing through reverse osmosis filter systems and maintenance at no cost, water delivery or connecting to a public water system; and public records so the public can understand the scope and severity of the nitrate contamination in the Lower Umatilla Basin and measure Oregon’s progress in implementing a response plan.

Statements From Community Members

Community members shared a wide array of concerns about nitrate-contaminated groundwater and how it has impacted their families. Many knew the water in the area was not safe for drinking but had not been heard or been provided with more specific information on the dangers of nitrates to community health. Most were using their well water for cooking and other domestic needs. Many people shared concerns about health problems such as cancer. They had difficulty finding information about wells and filtration systems, particularly in Spanish, but still took initiative to purchase and install filtration systems to improve their household water. Even so, many still saw their water test above federal safe drinking water levels.

Community members sit on folding chairs at a meeting in Boardman.
Community members meet in Boardman to call for safe drinking water, September 2022. | Source: Oregon Rural Action

The following statements are printed verbatim to allow residents the opportunity to speak for themselves on urgent issues of water security.

A. Lopez

"I have had my property in Boardman for the last 18 years. I have my own well here in the house that we live in. I share my testimony in hope that it will help me and my community to receive the necessary resources to ensure that we are a safe rural water community. The first time I noticed there was something wrong with the water quality was when we had to clean the water heater from all the corrosion buildup from the water. My mother has had her house for about 8 years now and every 3 to 4 months I help her clean the water heater... We have had to replace all the tubing in the house which was a pricey process. About 2 years ago, I built a home on the property... However, before I was able to get a loan for the house, I had to install a pricey filtration system that was around $5000... I recently tested my water, and the nitrates were almost 4 times the contaminant level (39.4ppm). I quickly learned that to have an effective filtration system, I have to change the filters out every 4 months. It costs me about $280 each time I change the filters, so that totals to more than $1120 of unnecessary expense if I only had clean water out my well."

M. Martinez

"I have been living in Boardman for the past 36 years…Unfortunately, last year I had two miscarriages. Now, hindsight, I wonder if the nitrates in the water caused me to have this problem because I used to drink the water and even cooked with the water since living here….No one had ever warned me about the danger that existed…Maybe if I knew the information, if I had had this information before, I wouldn't have done it… My well tested at 26."

M. Colin

"My parents have a long history of working in agriculture and harvesting in these areas since they arrived in the 1980s…I can't say for sure if I suffer or if my family suffers from any symptoms related to the effects of high levels of water nitrates. But what I can say with certainty is that we felt fear and concern when we received the news… Now I have to say (to my children), don't drink that water because it hurts you....My parents and neighbors have spent a lot of money on bottled water weekly,... installed expensive water filters that only worked a few years, this being the reason our water test resulted in a 36.5.…"

M. Brandt

"My name is M. Brandt and I have served in the Marine Corps. My wife and I have been residents of Morrow County for the last 25 years…. In order to get my mortgage, I had to install a water filtration… It was a frustrating experience having to come up with an additional $1,500 to get a system…I recently had my water tested and the nitrate levels are at 34.5, which are more than 3 times the contaminant level…"

C. Sanchez

"My name is C. Sanchez and I live here in the town of Boardman, I have been living here for more than 20 years outside of the city limits and in fact, this was the first year that I learned that this water is not good to drink…I have a four-year-old son and a son that’s two months old…"