Yakama wells to be tested for nitrates

HARRAH — The federal Indian Health Service plans to test about 60 wells for high nitrate levels on the Yakama Indian Reservation, where some fear dairies, feedlots and other agricultural ventures may be contaminating groundwater.

The Yakima Herald- Republic published a series of stories in October about contaminated groundwater in the region, prompting the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to begin assessing the problem in the lower Yakima Valley. The agency also asked the Yakama Nation to participate.

“We want to make sure they are at the table to get all their input as we move forward,” said EPA spokeswoman Marie Jennings.

The wells to be tested were found to have slightly elevated nitrate levels during a 1989 groundwater study. The tests are expected to begin this month and will be limited to tribal members living on tribal land or who have long-term leases on rental homes on the reservation.

Those with high levels of nitrates will either get a filtration system or a new well, depending on the well’s condition, said Indian Health Service field engineer Norman Hepner.

A groundwater study in 1989 found only two of the more than 400 wells tested on the 1.2 million-acre reservation with nitrate levels above what is considered safe.

Laurie Porter’s well was one of them, testing at more than double the amount deemed safe.

High levels of nitrates can harm infants, pregnant women, the elderly and people with compromised immune systems. Nitrate levels greater than 10 milligrams per liter are considered unsafe.

Porter’s well tested at 23 milligrams per liter in 1989, though she has lived in the home only for eight years.

“I’ve used bottled water since I’ve been in that home,” she said.

Once the initial tests are done, the long-term goal will be to conduct another groundwater study of all wells on the reservation similar to the 1989 study, Hepner said.

There are six dairies and six feedlots on the reservation, with the largest operation consisting of about 12,000 cows. Fearing these operations are having a major impact, tribal leaders recently banned any new ones and the expansion of existing operations.

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