Science & Environment

Eastern Oregon groundwater committee adds bilingual member after Gov. Tina Kotek steps in

By Monica Samayoa (OPB)
July 7, 2023 9:35 p.m.

An Eastern Oregon volunteer committee tasked with addressing nitrate contamination in local groundwater added its newest member on Friday. That’s after Gov. Tina Kotek delayed the search earlier this year, requesting the committee add a Spanish speaker.

Jose Garcia joined the Lower Umatilla Basin Groundwater Management Area committee at this week’s meeting. Randy Jones, who is the committee’s liaison to the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality, said Garcia checks the committee’s qualifications. He also speaks Spanish.

Radio La Ley Co-host Jose Garcia just finished recording his new weekly series, Acción Rural Hispana, which focuses on education and informing Spanish speakers about coronavirus. March, 29,2020.

In a file photo from 2020, Radio La Ley co-host Jose Garcia is shown after recording his weekly series, Acción Rural Hispana, which focused on education and informing Spanish speakers about the coronavirus.

Courtesy of Jose Garcia

“Jose is bilingual in English and Spanish, that was one of the criteria,” Jones said during the committee meeting. “I think importantly, as is really obvious with his experience, he will be substantially bicultural in his approach to problem solving and representation.”

Garcia has been helping community members, specifically the Latino community, in the region for decades. When the coronavirus first started to spread in 2020 and there was a lack of information available in Spanish, he helped farmworkers understand the virus. Garcia chairs the Hispanic Advisory Committee in Hermiston, which is a liaison between the city’s Latino community and elected officials, and he is the director of New Horizons, a substance abuse treatment program.


“When you have a passion in your community, you’re always stepping up just to find solutions to countless problems,” Garcia said at Friday’s committee meeting.

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. Data from DEQ show nitrate levels have steadily increased over the last three decades. Many of the affected residents are Latino.

Late last year, the committee vowed to restructure how the group operates under the guidance of a new chair. Some of the changes included adding two general public members to better represent community concerns. But after two months of searching, the committee only received six applicants.

The decision to pause the process and add a Spanish-speaking member came after Kotek visited the region as part of her statewide tour. During her meetings in the region, Kotek heard from people who said that the committee needed Latino representation and for the member to be a Spanish speaker.

Elisabeth Shepard, a spokesperson for Kotek, said the governor’s office actively recruited Garcia after he expressed interest during Kotek’s visit.

After the recommendation came in from the governor’s office, the committee was no longer involved in the appointment process.

Garcia is the 11th member and second public member of the committee.