Oregon Gov. Tina Kotek calls on groundwater pollution committee to add Spanish-speaking member

By Monica Samayoa (OPB)
May 9, 2023 1 p.m.

A committee tasked with addressing nitrate contamination in Eastern Oregon hit pause on adding a new member to the group after Gov. Tina Kotek asked the group to ensure the person is bilingual.

The Oregon Department of Environmental Quality announced on Friday that the Lower Umatilla Basin Groundwater Management Area committee will reopen its application process for its second general public seat. The decision sparked concerns from some of the committee members, who asked for clarification from the governor on how to move forward.


“This final position is to be closely considered,” DEQ’s Randy Jones said. “The governor does desire that this final person that fills this last position be bilingual, English and Spanish, and be a resident of the basin.”

Jones, who is the committee’s liaison to the agency, said DEQ is working closely with both the governor’s office and local leaders to ensure the new requirements are met.

Gov. Tina Kotek tours Boardman with local organization Oregon Rural Action on May 3. The group stops near the Port of Morrow, where a recent leak allowed thousands of gallons of wastewater to contaminate the site.

Gov. Tina Kotek tours Boardman with local organization Oregon Rural Action on May 3. The group stops near the Port of Morrow, where a recent leak allowed thousands of gallons of wastewater to contaminate the site.

Monica Samayoa / OPB

“The governor does not want this pause to slow down the good work of the committee and the momentum that has been generated,” he said. “So, this is just that, it is a pause to be very considerate.”

For more than 30 years, the Lower Umatilla Basin Groundwater Management Area committee has been tasked with figuring out what’s causing high levels of nitrate in the region’s groundwater, as well as developing recommendations for reducing them. Groundwater is the primary source of drinking water in Morrow and Umatilla counties, and data from the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality show nitrate levels have steadily increased over the last three decades.

Last year, the committee vowed to restructure how the group operates. The changes included adding two general public members to better represent community concerns. Initially, the position search did not require applicants to speak Spanish, but Latino residents asked the governor last week during a visit to add the requirement. Many people affected by the pollution in the region are Latino.

In an emailed statement Kotek press secretary Anca Matica said the governor recognizes the committee needs a Spanish-speaking member, especially after meeting directly with residents of the Lower Umatilla Basin last week.

For the past two months, the committee has advertised an open public member position and received six applications. Some of the responsibilities for the position include providing input and knowledge of rural communities in the area, voting in the committee, awareness of nitrate contamination and the ability to communicate and interact with a diverse group.


Some members of the committee asked questions last week at a meeting when the selection pause was announced. Several questions centered on what exactly bilingual means. Others, like committee member Karen Lewotsky, asked for formal written documents on the clarification and requirements for the role.

“I don’t think it’s going to help anybody for us to have a continuing lack of clarity,” said Lewotsky, who is also water policy director for the Oregon Environmental Council.

Irrigon city manager and committee member Aaron Palmquist asked for the bilingual requirement to be labeled as “strongly preferred” and that he wanted it applied across all committee members, not just the second public seat. Palmquist said he feared that adding this requirement would prevent the committee from finding qualified members and create “division.”

Other committee members welcomed the change. Umatilla County Commissioner Dan Dorran said he had a lengthy conversation with Kotek during her visit to the region last week. He said the committee is currently under a microscope by other groundwater management areas in the state and the change will help them move forward.

“I hope that the members that have applied that qualify do reapply because I think there are quality people there,” he said. “But I think it also opens up the application process for people that were hesitant before.”

Public meeting laws

After the committee members were told about the new requirement for the public seat, committee chair Salini Sasidharan apologized for apparent violations of Oregon public meeting laws that took place during the ongoing search.

Last month, Sasidharan said the committee held two meetings to discuss a voting process around the new member, but those meetings were held behind closed doors. Sasidharan said she believed she held informational meetings that did not need to be public, but some committee members called that decision into question afterward. She said she reached out to DEQ and received guidance on how to run meetings.

“I acknowledge that the committee is currently a public governing body. So any meeting should be done through the public policy,” she said.

Sasidharan, who is an assistant professor at Oregon State University, said DEQ and the Oregon Department of Justice will be reviewing the committee’s bylaws.

“I wanted to reassure you that my goal is to be transparent and to be open,” she said. “But at the same time, we are all learning this new process.”

It is unclear when the committee will make a member recommendation to DEQ.