Beleaguered Oregon water pollution committee gains new leadership amid scrutiny

The volunteer committee has tried and failed to stop nitrate pollution in area groundwater for 25 years

By: - August 18, 2022 6:00 am
Irrigation pivot in a field in Morrow County

An irrigation pivot sits in a crop of canola near Echo. About 85% of all the water diverted from rivers, streams and aquifers in Oregon is used for irrigated agriculture. A new Legislative proposal would stop the Oregon Water Resources Department from issuing new water rights until an inventory of existing water in the state’s 20 basins is done. (Kathy Aney/Oregon Capital Chronicle)

For 25 years, a volunteer committee of crop and livestock farmers, state and university scientists, local elected officials and business leaders has met to solve an intractable problem of nitrate pollution in the drinking water of hundreds of residents in Morrow and Umatilla counties. 

And for 25 years, the problem has grown worse. 

Since Morrow County declared an emergency over its groundwater pollution early last month, and as the federal Environmental Protection Agency considers using its emergency authority to intervene in the region, the committee has come under heightened scrutiny from both the public and within its own membership. 

In July, the group of 14 voted to elect a new leader. Salini Sasidharan is a sustainable groundwater management engineer and professor at Oregon State University. She is also a leader of a statewide groundwater research initiative focused on pollution and cleanup. Current and former members of the groundwater action committee expressed optimism about Sasidharan, but skepticism among some current and former members remains over whether the group, which has tried since it was formed in 1997 to find solutions to area groundwater pollution, can make a difference without state funding or regulatory authority and with people representing polluting industries among its membership.

Majority of pollution stems from agriculture

The aquifer beneath the soil in Morrow and Umatilla counties contains high levels of nitrates, invisible, tasteless, odorless compounds found in farm fertilizers and animal manure that seep beneath the ground and bind with water. 

For decades, they have been getting into hundreds of wells that residents drink from, which is dangerous because nitrates consumed over long periods can increase risks for cancer and birth defects. Many who rely on wells in Morrow and Umatilla counties are Latino and low-income.

Many on the groundwater action committee have played a role in the pollution, which is today worse than it was when the group was formed. Nearly 70% of the nitrate pollution is from irrigated agriculture, or crop farming, according to the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality. Other sources are food processors and the Port of Morrow, the region’s economic powerhouse, which send wastewater high in nitrogen out to area farmers to reuse as fertilizer. Manure from confined livestock operations with hundreds of cows or other animals in a limited space contains nitrogen and is also responsible for contaminating the groundwater.        

DEQ formed the groundwater action committee with regional representatives of the regulatory agency as well as people representing industries responsible for the pollution. Over the years, it grew to include people working for industrial dairies, food processors, the Port of Morrow and farmers growing crops on tens of thousands of acres of land.

The committee’s job was to study the problem and recommend voluntary actions polluters could take to reduce the amount of fertilizer, manure and nitrogen-rich wastewater they were putting on the land. It also recommended outreach and education, and ways state agencies could help.

“If after a scheduled evaluation point DEQ determines that the voluntary approach is not effective, then mandatory requirements may become necessary,” DEQ wrote of its plan at the time. It evaluated the progress every four years. But dozens of members, leaders, meetings and years later, reports showed voluntary reforms did not work. 

In 2020, the committee issued an updated plan of action for the first time since 1997. The findings were sober: In more than half of the wells that had been tested since the early 1990s, the nitrate levels had gone up. 

New leadership prompts hope for funding

“I think it can continue to be a platform to help drive progress,” said Scott Lukas, former chair of the committee. He served three years before stepping down July 11 to take a full-time teaching job at OSU in Corvallis. 

“But it’s important to remember that it’s still a voluntary committee with no teeth,” he said.

Lukas nominated Sasidharan because he believes she has the scientific background and authority to direct state and institutional dollars to the group. 

“She has significant expertise in groundwater management and has a deep understanding of the groundwater resources,” he said.

Sasidharan joined OSU in December 2021 after finishing a four-year postdoctoral research fellowship at the University of California, Riverside focused on maintaining groundwater quality in farming areas. The committee’s new vice chair is Qin Ruijun, a soil management and cultivation expert at OSU’s Hermiston Extension Center.

In emails, they both called for more studies.

“I would like to learn more about the region and the committee’s past and present activities and gain more scientific knowledge before publicly commenting on the future direction,” Sasidharan said.

Ruijun, who’s been on the committee in the past, also has no immediate fixes in mind but he did say the committee needed state funding to undertake more research.

The need for more money was echoed by Janet Greenup, an administrator at the Morrow County Soil and Water Conservation District who retired from the committee this year.

“We knew there was a problem, we had lots of discussions and assistance from agencies, but nothing monetary,” Greenup said. “We couldn’t actually do anything, which made it really frustrating.”

The committee asked State Rep. Greg Smith, R-Heppner, to help them get funding from the Legislature but that failed. “We were just kind of left spinning our wheels,” she said.


Fix faces many obstacles 

Besides more funding, the committee has not stuck to its mission, according to Randy Jones, head of DEQ’s Regional Solutions Team for northeast Oregon. He’s currently on the committee. 

“I think that the committee may be tied too closely to industry now,” he said. 

Mitch Wolgamott, former regional administrator for DEQ’s east Oregon office, agreed.

“There’s no way that the problem can be solved without some changes to irrigated agriculture,” said Wolgamott, a former committee member.

Among the 14 members of the committee, at least three are farmers or work for agriculture companies. The Capital Chronicle sought comment via phone and email from Aaron Madison of Madison Ranches and via phone, email and text from J.R. Cook, who is not on the committee but who has participated and heads the Northeast Oregon Water Association. Neither responded.

Lukas said the farmers – not state agencies – were the only members of the committee kicking money to projects through the OSU extension in Hermiston to better understand the groundwater nitrate issues in the basin. 

“These entities have not been providing the funding to advance the research,” Lukas said, referring to state agencies. “We’ve written so many proposals to get funding to the region. The only people stepping up are folks in agriculture in the region.” 

He added: “They put together funding, they’re trying to support research, they’ve been providing field space, donated to the station, to the lab, and paid for instrumentation to help build agricultural research in the region.” Nevertheless, Jones said the group has struggled to strike a balance between the need to grow food and the need to maintain water safety. He said farmers have rejected suggestions that more government regulations might be necessary. 

Wolgamott agreed that farmers need to reduce their nitrate pollution. 

“They don’t appear to be willing to do it voluntarily, so I don’t know any alternative than regulation,” Wolgamott said.

Wolgamott was dismayed that the new leaders want more research rather than recommending immediate actions. Other new leaders also have called for more studies even though there’s been plenty of research on nitrate pollution in the region from DEQ and OSU, Wolgamott said. 

“I hope they are serious about doing something this time,” he said. “They certainly were not willing to do so when I was there.”

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Alex Baumhardt
Alex Baumhardt

Alex Baumhardt has been a national radio producer focusing on education for American Public Media since 2017. She has reported from the Arctic to the Antarctic for national and international media, and from Minnesota and Oregon for The Washington Post.