The Straight Facts About Nitrate and Water
What do you know about nitrate and groundwater? If you follow recent media reports and others dating back to 2008, you may have some misunderstandings that need to be corrected. These reports are generated by an Oregon-based lawyer and a handful of anti-dairy activists who continue to make false claims about nitrate in groundwater, the role of dairies, and the health risks of nitrate in drinking water.
Why are some promoting a “nitrate crisis?”
Money, and the desire to end dairy farming. The Oregon lawyer is suing dairy farms and working to create a climate of hostility toward dairy farms. He is earning millions in legal fees and the very few activists that support him have received funding from environmental legal settlements. He is effective in getting media outlets to report his accusations as if they represent the facts. KIMA TV’s recent two part series on dairies and water quality is just one example.
KIMA TV’s recent faulty reporting on dairies and nitrate:
Do area wells have high levels of nitrate as some claim?
There are some wells that have nitrate levels above the current EPA limit of 10 parts per million. But EPA’s estimate of 12% of wells above this limit is one half the wells in similar farming country across the nation. Nitrate above the EPA limit is very common where farming has been done for fifty years or more and with certain soil conditions. For example, Franklin and Benton counties have groundwater above the limit despite having very few dairy farms. So, no, there is no crisis in Yakima groundwater when you compare to other areas.
Details about Yakima wells compared to other farming areas are contained on page 3 of our nitrate fact sheet:
Does nitrate above the limit cause health problems?
The EPA continues to set a very low limit but this limit was established based on a 1940’s study that established a link between nitrate used for mixing with infant formula and a disease of infants under six months called blue baby syndrome. It is a serious disease, but numerous studies since then have shown that study was wrong and disputed any link to nitrate in water and that disease. Similarly, studies linking nitrate to other diseases such as cancer have been shown to be false. However, the lawyer and activists continue to claim that nitrate in groundwater represents an immediate risk to humans of all ages.
Details on science studies related to nitrate and health:
Also see page 6 and following:
What is the cause of nitrate in groundwater?
Nitrate is a naturally occuring substance and a recent study shows that in the soil conditions of our area, there is a high level of natural nitrate. There are a number of other sources, including residential septic systems which are major contributors especially when concentrated in a small area like the homes near Outlook. The most likely cause of nitrate above the limits in our area are from historic farming practices, similarly to most farming areas across the nation. Excess nitrogen in the form of commercial fertilizer combined with heavy irrigation is known to be a major contributor. But these practices have changed and in some farming areas reductions in nitrate levels in water have been seen particularly by dairy farms. It takes many years of improvement for residual nitrate to be reduced. There is no question that dairy farms can and have contributed nitrate to groundwater. But it is absolutely wrong to claim as some have that they are the only or even the primary contributor. Because dairies can contribute, our farmers are working diligently to limit or eliminate any nitrate contributions to water.
Manure lagoons vs. on site sewage systems (residential septic systems):
2019 Wisconsin Public Radio report on septics and water quality:
Who can be believed?
If groundwater quality is important to you, and it should be, you deserve to know the facts. Please carefully review these links. Any questions or comments should be directed to Stacey Cobb, administrator for Eastern Washington Family Farmers at firstname.lastname@example.org.