Ground water to be managed

Yakima County has the go-ahead to begin attacking ground water pollution that has been threatening drinking-water supplies for Lower Valley residents on private wells.

State Department of Ecology Director Ted Sturdevant recently approved creating a ground water management area south of Union Gap that will focus on nitrate pollution. The management area includes 512 square miles, stretching to Benton City in Benton County.

Yakima County proposed the management area in June as a way to maintain local control over the problem after the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced plans for well-water testing in the region.

The approval comes with $300,000 to establish an advisory committee that will develop elements of a plan to reduce the threat posed by nitrate contamination. The county will receive the money on a reimbursable basis.

Sturdevant called the funding an investment to protect public health even with a tight state budget. Yakima County Commissioner Mike Leita said it's a positive step.

"We will have a formal entity to engage the community for solutions to the ground water issues we have in that region," Leita said.

Charlie McKinney, the agency's central region water quality manager in Yakima, said the advisory committee, representing all interests in the Lower Valley, will be established within the next several weeks.

According to the county's application for the designation, the committee will include environmental and Hispanic community leaders, the two counties, the Yakama Nation, city representatives, Farm Bureau, irrigators, county, state and federal agencies.

A Yakima Herald-Republic series in 2008 titled "Hidden Wells, Dirty Water" highlighted the problem and the lack of coordinated action by local, state and federal officials to respond.

In a follow-up to the series, the EPA conducted tests that found 21 percent of 337 wells had nitrate pollution above the federal drinking water standard.

Nitrates are present from a number of sources, including animal waste, failing septic tanks and application of fertilizers.

The county's ground water management area application estimated as many as 1,000 homes are supplied with water that exceeds the federal drinking water standard of 10 parts per million of nitrates.

Nitrate contamination poses health risks for infants, pregnant women and those with compromised immune systems. Nitrates can also be an indicator of other contaminants, such as bacteria.

The Legislature appropriated funding for a program earlier this year that saw the installation of 161 under-sink water filtration systems in Lower Valley homes.

McKinney said the committee likely will conduct some ground water monitoring to identify the nature and extent of the contamination and develop best management practices to reduce pollution.

The state grant will get the program off the ground, but additional grant funding will be needed to implement the program.