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Celebrating Drinking Water Week 2024

(Originally published in the East Oregonian on May 7, 2024)

Clean drinking water is essential for every person’s health and well-being. That’s why access to safe water — whether from a well, public system, or other source — is a key component of healthy communities.

For more than 40 years, the first week of May has been recognized as National Drinking Water Week. It’s an opportunity to highlight access to safe and reliable water sources, especially here in Umatilla and Morrow counties.

Nearly 23% of Oregonians get their drinking water from domestic wells, and in the Lower Umatilla Basin Groundwater Management Area (LUBGWMA) there are approximately 3,300 households relying on wells. The rest of the population gets their water from municipal or community systems.

Water from a municipal water system is treated and regulated by local cities to meet safety standards set by the EPA. This approach ensures that water undergoes rigorous testing and treatment processes to remove contaminants before it reaches peoples’ taps. Municipal water systems are one of the most significant developments in human history, allowing thousands or even millions of people to efficiently share a water supply.

Water from a private well comes directly from the ground beneath a property. The well water’s quality and purity depends largely on the geological structure of the area, the depth of the well, and sources of contamination from nearby activities or pollutants. This can be anything from a leaking septic system just beneath the surface to nitrates in groundwater.

Unlike municipal water systems, there is no direct governmental oversight of water quality coming from private wells. State and federal agencies do have a stake in groundwater quality in general and have rules and policies on how it can be used, determine where and when wastewater can be discharged, and are responsible for protecting municipal drinking water source areas.

Proper maintenance is crucial to protecting the quality of drinking water for households relying on wells, and regular testing is necessary to understand any changing conditions. This may include bringing in professional help and being careful about disposal of contaminants and septic systems near the well.

Even with careful monitoring and maintenance, some well users in the Lower Umatilla Basin will still have nitrates above the recommended level of 10 mg/L coming to their tap. The LUBGWMA Committee was created to develop an actionable plan that studies the groundwater system and puts forth best practices for ag and other water users to reduce nitrate introduction to groundwater. The Committee met with state agency leaders from the Environmental Quality, Agriculture, and Water Resources departments in April to discuss actions currently underway and next steps.

The Second Action Plan was finalized in 2020 and lays out a framework of goals, objectives, strategies and actions to reduce nitrates. Many of these actions are already being taken, and monitoring and meaningful research will show where improvements are happening. As of 2020, nitrate concentrations in the LUBGWMA were increasing in some areas and decreasing in others. It is important we understand the hydrogeology of the basin and how groundwater nitrate concentrations are affected by land surface activities to determine why we see improvements in some areas but not in others.

Many people who live and work in the Basin are optimistic that progress is finally being made and more work needs to be done. Thankfully, we’re seeing commitment from government, business, and community organizations to work together to ensure clean drinking water for every person.

Justin B. Green is the director of Water for Eastern Oregon (H2OEO), a coalition of local businesses and organizations working to support short-term and long-term solutions to ensure clean drinking water for every person in the Lower Umatilla Basin. Learn more at


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