State legislators approve nearly $6 million for water emergencies in rural Oregon

Lawmakers allocated $5 million for drought problems in Klamath County and nearly $900,000 for contaminated well water in Morrow and Umatilla counties

By: - September 26, 2022 5:40 am

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

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. 

Nitrate-contaminated wells

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. 

Wells run dry

The emergency money to Klamath County is its second this year for residents whose wells have gone dry.

In June, in light of drought declarations in 14 counties, the legislative Emergency Board approved $5 million from the state’s general fund to help municipalities deliver water. The bulk of that funding went to Klamath County, where at least 200 residential wells have dried up in the past several years, according to the director of the Oregon Department of Human Services, Fariborz Pakseresht.

With the additional $5 million in assistance from the Emergency Board, the county will be able to address a backlog of emergency assistance applications from residents who need help with bulk water deliveries and getting water from tanks pumped into their homes. 

Since 2021, the Oregon Department of Human Services has purchased 350 water tanks for Klamath County. It has delivered 193 tanks to residents. Each tank holds 500 gallons, with the water from a fire hydrant in the yard of the Klamath County Public Works building. Last December, the county also received $4 million from the Legislature for a new well assistance program. Homeowners can be reimbursed for 75% of the cost of drilling a new well, not exceeding $40,000. 

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Alex Baumhardt
Alex Baumhardt

Alex Baumhardt is a reporter for Oregon Capital Chronicle. She 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.