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An investigation into the water wells of rural Washington

Fellowship Story Showcase

An investigation into the water wells of rural Washington

Picture of Leah Beth Ward

Thousands of rural, mostly poor, Lower Yakima Valley residents rely on small private wells that aren't routinely tested or inspected.

A little-noticed study six years ago found one in five wells tested contained nitrates above federal standards, yet little has been done since.

An investigation by the Yakima Herald-Republic looks at the problem, why so little has been done and how other areas have tackled the problem. The project spurred an EPA investigation. It was also honored with a first place award for investigative reporting from the Society of Professional Journalists Northwest and a special citation from the judges of the 2009 James V. Risser Prize for Western Environmental Journalism. Here is the link to the full project, which also includes maps of the wells, on the Yakima Herald Website.

Hidden Wells, Dirty Water
Evidence of groundwater contamination in the Lower Valley has been ignored for years, leaving poor rural residents exposed to health risks and nowhere to turn
Yakima Herald-Republic
Thursday, July 30, 2009

OUTLOOK -- Like many rural Lower Yakima Valley residents, Norma and Leonardo Solano used their well water for years with little thought.

But in January, Norma Solano saw a television report about contaminated well water at nearby Outlook Elementary School. The water had tested high in nitrates, an odorless compound found in water and soil that can pose health risks.

For days afterward, she tried to learn how widespread the problem might be.

"I called the school and they said the problem was just at the school," Solano recalls. "I left three messages at the health district and didn't hear back. Nobody came around with any information in either English or Spanish.

"Maybe they don't worry, but I do."

As news of the school's water problem spread, a company selling filtration systems came looking for customers. It tested the Solanos' well and found unacceptable levels of nitrates -- just like at the school. It then tried to sell the Solanos a $4,000 filtration system.

"We are poor people. We cannot afford that," says Solano, who works as many hours as she can get at Fiesta Foods in Sunnyside. Her husband is a farm worker and tends a few goats on the side.

The couple now spends $200 a month for bottled water, the equivalent of more than $1 of every $10 they earn, as they struggle to keep up with the mortgage on their 1910 wood-frame farmhouse.

Their situation isn't unique.

A little noticed scientific study six years ago found that one in five of 195 wells tested outside five Lower Valley communities contained levels of nitrates above federal safety limits.

The wells that were tested serve homes situated amid and around dairies, cornfields and orchards. The wells are usually shallow and old, and may be too close to aging septic systems that could be failing. In any case, the wells are not connected to municipal water supplies, which are regularly tested for contaminants.

In 1991, when contaminated shallow wells were found in a then-unincorporated area between Yakima and Union Gap, the state ordered an emergency bottled water distribution program for hundreds of homes. A large-scale education campaign also was undertaken warning residents about the potential danger of using shallow drinking wells.

No such actions have been suggested in the Lower Valley, leaving people like the Solanos not knowing where to turn.

Responsibility for keeping groundwater and drinking water clean is divided among at least five different state and federal agencies, which often have conflicting missions. Coordination is poor. Adequate money is in short supply. And legal loopholes can make it difficult to enforce clean-water laws.

Despite the evidence of contamination, including bacteria found in the feces of warm-blooded animals, there's been no attempt at a widespread testing program for private wells in the Lower Valley. The presence of nitrates raises the likelihood that other contaminants could also be reaching well water.

But no government agency tracks or reports health problems that could be caused by contaminated wells.

Nitrates and the bacteria they are often found with are part of rural life. They come from the manure of dairy cows and beef cattle, horses, wildlife, human feces and the application of commercial fertilizer to crops.

But a Yakima Herald-Republic investigation of public records found that broader efforts to scientifically identify and monitor groundwater pollution have been thwarted by the dairy and livestock industries -- which in Yakima County account for an estimated 115,000 dairy cows and beef cattle living in concentrations as great as 8,000 per farm.

It's a problem other communities have grappled with. Ten years ago in neighboring Grant County, residents, local elected officials, farmers, feedlot operators and dairies recognized that nitrates had seriously contaminated groundwater. Since then, there's been an ongoing effort to reduce the problem.

But in Yakima County, such dialogue is rare. Indeed, it's nonexistent.

A group of activists opposed to big dairies decided many years ago that the hammerhead of litigation -- threatened and real -- is the only way to force change. They've refused to participate in government rule-making surrounding manure management.

Dairy producers, proud and private, prefer to speak through their lawyers and lobbyists. They say they are family farmers under siege for a way of life that contributes substantially to the local economy.

Although dairies have had and continue to have demonstrated environmental problems, the most important details of their operations are kept secret from the public, leaving people like Solano to trust the same government they can't get any help from.

Both dairies and their adversaries continue to ring up thousands of dollar in legal fees to defend their positions.

Meanwhile, at the cost of $48,000 in taxpayer dollars, the Outlook school was able to drill a deeper well into cleaner water.

That's not an option for people like the Solanos and their neighbors in the Lower Valley, where nearly half the residents live below the federal poverty level.

Today, Monday and Tuesday, the Yakima Herald-Republic will look at groundwater contamination, how it affects everyday life, why the problems have been overlooked and what can be done about it.

To read the entire series, including an interactive map and follow-up news, visit Hidden Wells, Dirty Water on the Yakima Herald-Republic website.