Lawmakers Approve $882,000 for Water Emergencies in E. Oregon

The state Legislature allocated nearly $6 million for residential water wells in Morrow, Umatilla and Klamath counties. (Photo courtesy of Environmental Protection Agency)

By Alex Baumhardt

State lawmakers granted nearly $6 million to address well water issues in eastern and southern Oregon.

The money was approved at a meeting of the state’s legislative Emergency Board on Friday. The board approves emergency expenditures and federal grant applications between legislative sessions.

In northeast Oregon, Morrow and Umatilla counties will receive about $882,000 from the state’s general fund to test tap water of private well users for nitrates and to provide reverse-osmosis filters for those who have polluted well water. The money will be distributed through the Oregon Health Authority.

In Klamath County in southern Oregon, the Oregon Water Resources Department will use $5 million for residents whose wells have gone dry in the midst of the ongoing drought.

Requests by counties for emergency money must go through state agencies, and the money must be approved by the governor’s office before the Emergency Board considers them.

In June, Morrow County commissioners declared an emergency over nitrate-contaminated water, hoping it would usher in state aid. A locally-led testing program of water from 500 faucets in households relying on wells found nearly half had nitrate levels deemed unsafe by the Environmental Protection Agency and the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality. Umatilla County’s local testing program is just getting underway, and the county public health department has tested 61 households that rely on wells. Of them, 13 have come back with high nitrate levels.

The $882,000 from the Emergency Board will be split between the counties and the Oregon Health Authority to pay for bilingual Spanish and English outreach, water testing, staff and under-the-sink reverse-osmosis systems that filter out nitrates.

There are an estimated 4,500 domestic wells in Morrow and Umatilla counties supplying water to 12,000 people. Many are Latino and low income. It is not yet known how many wells might be contaminated by nitrates, which is a compound commonly found in farm fertilizers and animal manure. The risks of consuming high levels of nitrates over long periods include miscarriage, thyroid disorders and some forms of cancer. Morrow County Commissioner Jim Doherty asked state Rep. Greg Smith, a Republican who represents the area, in August to submit a letter to the governor and the Emergency Board requesting $4 million in assistance.

Smith said he talked with the governor’s regional solutions representative for East Oregon, Courtney Crowell, and was told that the governor would only be considering a request for $882,000 through the health authority.

This story first appeared in the Oregon Capital Chronicle.