As U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley peered underneath a sink belonging to Mike Pearson, the Morrow County local told him that the reverse osmosis filter provided by the county still wasn’t getting enough nitrates out of his drinking water to make it safe.
“I had one in, we tested it,” Pearson said. “And if I remember right, the best we could get is 12. And then when I put this new one in, it’s 26.1.”
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency maintains that any nitrate concentration above 10 parts per million is unsafe to drink.
For decades, fertilizer runoff and wastewater from farms and industrial operations have seeped into the groundwater of the Lower Umatilla Basin, an area that covers northern Morrow County and western Umatilla County. For many residents who draw their water from private wells rather than city water systems, this has meant dangerously high concentrations of nitrates, a chemical that can cause respiratory infections, thyroid dysfunctions and bladder cancer.
Merkley was in Morrow County ahead of his annual town hall in Irrigon on Jan. 15, but also to tout $1.7 million in federal funding to study groundwater solutions, like connecting residents to a city water system or the creation of a rural water district.
The people Merkley encountered on the tour were happy he was there but implored him to help them further.
Less than a mile away was the home of Ana Maria Rodriguez, who showed the senator where the nitrates had corroded her bathroom faucet. The filters worked for Rodriguez, but it still came at a cost: The filters could not produce enough water to cover all of her family’s needs, meaning she still needed to venture into town to buy water.
The visit with Rodriguez was significant not only because she is a Morrow County resident affected by nitrate pollution, but also because she is a community organizer with the nonprofit Oregon Rural Action.
She helped gather about 20 people in her garage to talk about their concerns. They held up pieces of paper with their nitrate levels measured in parts per million: 40.9, 43, 54. Oregon Rural Action staffer Zaira Sanchez provided translation for the senator as the many Latino audience members asked questions.
They told Merkley that they had heard promises from authorities in the past, but wanted assurances they would continue to get access to clean water and updates on the status of the crisis. Confusion and frustration with local government, state agencies and elected officials charged with solving the problem became a running theme throughout the day.
Holding her 3-year-old daughter, Ruth Lopez said she didn’t want to expose her child to nitrates.
“I hope that this doesn’t affect this younger generation as well,” she said. “So I asked with all my heart that you continue to support us with this issue.”
The residents also shared a Jan. 10 letter sent to Gov. Tina Kotek, signed by more than 100 people. The letter said that many of the 4,500 private wells serving 14,000 people in the Lower Umatilla Basin hadn’t been tested, but 70% of the ones that had been tested showed unsafe nitrate levels.
“State agencies have failed to protect our groundwater and are unresponsive in meeting our basic need for safe drinking water,” they wrote. “We need your immediate attention to address this rural environmental injustice.”
Responding to nitrate contamination has long been the domain of state and local government rather than the federal government. The state’s responsibility is divided between the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality, the Oregon Department of Agriculture and the Oregon Health Authority.
The Morrow County government was also involved last year when it declared an emergency last summer and began distributing water and filters. But the emergency expired at the end of the year and the county is passing off water delivery to a fourth state agency — the Oregon Department of Human Services. The department is set to end water distribution at the end of June at the latest.
Meanwhile, OHA has yet to start testing wells in the Lower Umatilla Basin.
The thicket of state and local agencies in charge of responding to the crisis has left people in the dark about who they should turn to with their issues. When Merkley asked the group if they knew that the state was taking over water delivery, they said they didn’t.
The federal government has indicated that it may not stay on the sideline forever. In July, the EPA wrote a letter to state agencies encouraging them to take more enforcement action against polluters and other measures to help Lower Umatilla Basin residents, or the state could risk federal intervention.
The two legislators who represent the Lower Umatilla Basin — state Sen. Bill Hansell and state Rep. Greg Smith — were not on the tour and have not proposed legislation to address the issue either.
But in an interview, Hansell said addressing it is a priority for him. He said he previously reached out to Morrow County commissioners and a representative from the governor’s regional solution team to offer his assistance if needed.
“I just haven’t heard anything,” he said.
Hansell said he was waiting to receive Kotek’s budget proposal to see if money would be allocated for water deliveries. He also said he deferred to Smith on the issue since the Heppner representative lives in Morrow County.
Smith did not respond to a request for comment.
Some residents didn’t just want to see their drinking water cleaned and restored, but also accountability from the individuals and companies that contributed to the pollution in the first place.
At the Merkley town hall in Irrigon, Kathleen Mendoza said her well tests above 50 parts per million and critiqued a “piddly-ass fine” the Oregon DEQ issued to the Port of Morrow for over-applying nitrogen-rich wastewater on agricultural fields in the Lower Umatilla Basin.
After the town hall ended, Mendoza said in an interview that she’s developed a rheumatic disease and needs to take thyroid medication since moving to Morrow County in 2000. She wanted to see more action.
“I really feel like the federal government needs to step in and tell the state of Oregon to get on a stick and do something about this,” she said.
Back in Rodriguez’s garage, Merkley described himself more as a facilitator than a regulator. Merkley’s office could work to connect residents with the proper state authority, he said, but it was the state rather than the federal government that would help them solve the problem.
“In my role, I’ll have to advocate since I’m representing us in the national government,” he said. “I’m not the governor, but I can certainly raise it with the state department of health and with the governor to say, ‘How’s this transition happening and let’s make sure there’s not a gap here.’”
It was an explanation that was received politely but not without some pushback. Back at Rodriguez’s garage, resident Paulo Lopez urged Merkley to help him and his neighbors retain water deliveries to their home.
When Merkley pointed to state authorities, Lopez gave his response in Spanish before pausing while he waited for Sanchez to translate.
“We know you have power as well.”