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Residents Rely on Bottled Water As Decontamination Efforts Continue

Washington state’s Lower Valley has had excess levels of nitrate in groundwater since the early 90s and in 2017, 20 percent of wells exceeded the state’s drinking water standards.

Araceli Martinez sits in her living room while her two grandsons, Damian and Donovan, drag each other across the room on a skateboard. She looks out a window and into the field of hops in front of her Mabton, Wash., home.

Six-year-old Damian, the older of the two, leaves the house and runs into the backyard looking for a snack. From his grandmother's garden, he picks a cucumber no longer than his hand and goes back inside.

Damian stands on the tips of his toes as he struggles to reach for a 5-gallon water jug on the kitchen counter.

"Do you want that washed?" Martinez asks from the living room. Damian nods his head.

She walks up to him, takes the cucumber from his hand and leans the mouth of the jug over the kitchen sink to rinse the cucumber.

While tap water is still used for showers and laundry, it's been years since anyone in the Martinez household has consumed it.

The 5-gallon jugs have become a permanent feature in the house. One sits on the kitchen counter while four more sit on the living room floor, refracting the light coming in from a nearby window. Outside, a handful of bottles lay in a pile, ready to be refilled.

Identifying the Contamination

In 2019, groundwater testing by the Yakima Health District on Martinez's private well revealed her water was above the state's safe drinking standards for nitrate concentration.

At that point, efforts to chart nitrate groundwater contamination in the Lower Valley had been going on for decades. Since the early 1990s, studies done by county, state and federal agencies had found excess levels of nitrate in groundwater across the Lower Valley.

By 2010, an assessment done by the county showed more than 2,000 people in the Lower Valley, about 7 percent of its population at the time, were being exposed to unhealthy levels of nitrates.

A 2017 Washington Department of Ecology study that tested 150 private domestic wells in the area found that 20 percent of the wells exceeded the state's drinking water standards for nitrates.

Nitrates naturally occur in soil, but concentrations can rise dramatically in environments in which fertilizer is heavily used.

In the Lower Valley, which is comprised mainly of irrigated farmland and livestock operations, studies and a yearslong legal battle helped determine that the overuse of fertilizers, a lack of regulation around livestock management and faulty fertilizer storage led to the widespread contamination. Over the course of decades, high concentrations of nitrate entered the soil and slowly seeped into the groundwater below.

A 2012 Environmental Protection Agency study linked dairies in the Lower Valley to the contamination. The dairy industry disagreed, filing a federal lawsuit challenging the study. The lawsuit was dismissed in 2021.

The study required some Lower Valley dairies to enter into an agreement with the EPA and the local environmental group CARE, the Community Association for the Restoration of the Environment, which sued those dairies over groundwater contamination and high nitrate concentrations. The agreement required the dairies to take steps to limit contamination.

The agreement required those dairies to install double synthetic liners in manure storage ponds and reduce the amount of manure applied to fields as fertilizer.

Health Effects

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, exposure to high nitrate levels can decrease the blood's ability to carry oxygen. Babies and older adults are at the highest risk for becoming sick from high exposure to nitrates.

Exposure can lead to conditions like methemoglobinemia, also known as blue baby syndrome. In 2014, the Yakima Health District categorized the diseases as a notifiable condition, which allowed instances of blue baby syndrome in the county to be tracked.

Since then, no cases have been reported.

According to the EPA, high exposure to nitrates can also exacerbate other conditions such as anemia, lung disease, sepsis and cardiovascular diseases.

Groundwater Management Area

In 2010, under the the Safe Drinking Water Act, the EPA determined that nitrate contamination posed a threat to human health in the Lower Valley.

By 2012 Yakima County, with the approval from Ecology, formed the Lower Yakima Valley Groundwater Management Area to help develop regulatory strategies to curb the use of fertilizers in the area and reduce the amount of nitrates being introduced into groundwater.

The GWMA, which encompasses much of the county east of the Yakima River from Union Gap south to Mabton, was established at the same time as the Lower Yakima Valley Groundwater Advisory Committee. The committee is made up of more than 20 members representing different agencies, affected residents, dairy producers, farmers and environmental advocacy groups.

Living With Uncertainty

During this time, through all the studies, partnerships, legal battles and re-testing, Martinez and her family remained oblivious.

To Martinez, the house in which she's lived for more than 20 years always felt safe. Before finding out about the contamination, the hops and corn fields that surround her home were just part of the view, something she never gave a second thought about.

But since she received those initial groundwater results in 2019, the fields have never looked the same, she said.

"I look out there now, when there are workers on the field or when they're spraying, and I think about what they're putting in the ground," Martinez said. "I didn't think about it before, but I think about it a lot now. We've been living here for years, I wonder how long we've been drinking the nitrate."

Martinez lives with five other family members, including her husband and her daughter. She often takes care of her grandchildren, and their parents visit, too.

She said her family, as far as she knows, has always been healthy.

Repeated exposure to high levels of nitrate poses only a small risk to healthy adults. For adults with chronic illnesses, especially gastrointestinal conditions, exposure is much more noticeable.

That's the case for Denise Nelson, a longtime Zillah resident who loves her home and has liked being surrounded by farmland for the 22 years she's lived there.

Denise and her husband, Tom, have been getting their well water tested annually for years. In 2018, test results from her well started showing elevated nitrate levels of 8 milligrams of nitrate per liter of water. High, but still below the state's 10 mg/L safe drinking water levels. By 2020, the nitrates levels had risen above the state's minimum.

By that point, Denise and Tom had stopped drinking her home's water.

"I was very upset when we got those results," Denise said. "We had started buying bottled water several years earlier because I was convinced it was causing stomach problems for me. We had little bottles of water, that's all I drank."

Denise said she began feeling better after switching to bottled water.

Tom, who drank the well water for a few more years before being notified by the health district they were going to start testing the groundwater near them for nitrates in 2022, said he felt a difference too when he made the switch.

"I will tell you this, once we started getting the bottled water, I thought it was a good thing," Tom said. "I don't know how much of that could have been psychosomatic, but I just felt like bowel movements were more regular and consistent. That's the biggest thing."

Despite the contamination being followed since the '90s by different agencies, neither the Nelsons nor the Martinezes knew what they were dealing with until less than five years ago.

All three said the thought of drinking their well water for years, not knowing it was contaminated, is upsetting.

"I was convinced the water was making me sick for a long time," Denise Nelson said. "We both love to cook and I have to drink a lot of water. I have to stay hydrated, because of my health conditions."

Lower Yakima Valley Water Pilot Project

In June 2022, the Yakima Health District, with funds from the state Department of Health, started the Lower Yakima Valley Water Pilot Project.

A plan ratified by the state in 2019 to address the contamination made well owners responsible for treating their wells themselves. This prompted the creation of the pilot program, allowing the county to distribute bottled water to affected residents.

For the majority of residents in the Lower Valley, many of them living below the federal poverty line, fixing the wells themselves — whether by digging new wells or installing advanced filtration systems — would prove costly.

Martinez said a contractor gave her an estimate of $10,000 to install a system to filter out nitrates.

In addition to providing residents like Martinez and Denise with bi-monthly deliveries of bottled water, the bottled water pilot project is also a public health campaign that aims to inform people on the contamination and get them involved in conversations for future solutions.

Surveys distributed to affected households by the Yakima Health District found that 29 percent of residents avoided using well water for drinking and washing before the pilot project. The number rose to 77 percent after the project started.

The pilot program will survey 500 households in the Lower Valley. Efforts are ongoing, a spokesperson for the health district said.

Lower Valley residents interested in filling out the survey can do so online by visiting the health district's survey webpage. The survey is also in Spanish.

Moving Forward

The GWMA Implementation Committee was established in 2019 to guide regulatory and decontamination efforts inside the affected area.

The COVID-19 pandemic put the committee's actions on hold for the most part until 2022.

The water pilot project was one of their first orders of business but has since been followed by a handful of other accomplishments.

This year, the Legislature appropriated $850,000 for the 2023-25 biennium to conduct education, outreach, testing and alternate water delivery to homes in the GWMA.

These funds have helped with the installation of 42 ambient groundwater monitoring wells in the county along with quarterly testing of those wells.

Contractors have put together contour maps of the Lower Valley to provide more clear visualizations of water test results and their locations.

Other actions the implementation committee are working on include developing an agricultural producer education and outreach campaign to establish safer farming practices in the area and seeking consistent funding to continue promoting water quality improvement within the GWMA.

A full list of pending and completed actions by the implementation committee can be found on the Yakima Health District's website.

(c)2023 Yakima Herald-Republic (Yakima, Wash.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
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