BOARDMAN, Ore. (AP) — A port along the Columbia River in northeast Oregon will spend up to $200 million during the next four years to better treat and store wastewater used to irrigate farms, under a modified state permit issued last month.
The investment by the Port of Morrow comes after the state Department of Environmental Quality fined the port $2.1 million in June for repeatedly over-applying nitrogen-rich water on crops including corn and potatoes, the Capital Press reported.
Nitrogen is a valuable nutrient for crops, but the excess seeps into soil and groundwater. Combined with oxygen, nitrogen becomes nitrate, a colorless and tasteless compound that can pose serious health risks.
The port has a permit with the DEQ to take wastewater from 17 industrial businesses at its industrial park near Boardman and use it to irrigate farms in an area where it rains only 9 inches (23 centimeters) per year.
According to the DEQ, the port committed more than 1,000 infractions between 2018 and 2021, resulting in 165 tons of excess nitrogen spread on the land.
In June, Morrow County declared a local state of emergency after private well water testing showed high levels of nitrate contamination. Drinking high levels of nitrate can cause health problems like respiratory infections, thyroid dysfunction, and stomach or bladder cancer.
The area straddling northern Umatilla and Morrow counties is also a hotspot for elevated levels of groundwater nitrates. Known as the Lower Umatilla Basin Groundwater Management Area, it encompasses approximately 4,500 domestic wells that provide water for about 12,000 people, mostly low-income Latino families.
While the port is responsible for 3.5% of nitrates in the area, the port’s Executive Director Lisa Mittelsdorf said “our responsibility as environmental stewards is to do everything possible to ensure industrial wastewater remains a community asset.”
Starting in November 2025, the port can no longer apply the water on farms in the wetter winter months between November and February unless it is treated. Applying nitrogen at that time of year can increase the likelihood that it seeps below the level at which crops absorb it.
The port is building new facilities to treat the water and they’re expected to be finished by late 2023, port leaders said in a statement. Other measures include building new wastewater storage lagoons by late 2026, and spreading the water over 1,600 acres of additional farmland to minimize nitrogen loading.
In addition to reducing the amount of groundwater pumped from stressed aquifers, recycling wastewater from the port helps offset the use of commercial fertilizer that would otherwise generate up to 12,000 tons of carbon dioxide annually, according to the Northeast Oregon Water Association.
Meanwhile, work continues to test residents’ wells and warn them about the dangers of consuming excess nitrates.
Oregon Rural Action, a nonprofit organization based in La Grande, has gone door-to-door with county health officials as part of the effort.
Kristin Anderson Ostrom, the group’s executive director, said their most recent data shows 200 out of 485 household wells tested were above the federal safe drinking water limit.
In September, the Oregon Legislature’s Emergency Board allocated $882,000 to pay for more tests, outreach and reverse-osmosis water filters.
Nella Mae Parks, a senior organizer for Oregon Rural Action, said nitrate contamination is a persistent problem in the basin that will require everyone to work together.
“These are rural communities, and people care for each other. They don’t want to be poisoning their neighbors,” Parks said. “We’re going to have to take a `both, and’ approach. We can have agriculture, we can have jobs, and we can have safe drinking water.”
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