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Unraveling the Complexities of Lower Umatilla Basin's Nitrate Pollution: Industry Initiatives & Environmental Skepticism

nitrate pollution

The ongoing nitrate pollution crisis in the Lower Umatilla Basin has been a matter of concern for decades, with a substantial connection to the local agricultural industry. Recently, agricultural companies in the region have formed a nonprofit organization named Water for Eastern Oregon, aiming to address the issue and ensure clean drinking water access in the basin. However, environmental groups remain skeptical, accusing the industry of "greenwashing" their role in nitrate pollution.

Background & Formation of Water for Eastern Oregon

Water for Eastern Oregon emerged as a response to a Morrow County nitrates emergency declaration in June 2022. Comprising major farms and agricultural processors such as Tillamook Creamery, Boardman Foods, Threemile Canyon Farms, Beef Northwest, Lamb Weston, and AgriNorthwest, the organization aims to educate the community about well testing, interpretation of results, and long-term solutions to nitrate pollution. The group, also known as H2OEO, operates as a 501(c)(4) nonprofit, emphasizing a science-based approach, and claiming no interest in political lobbying.

Short-term Goals & Lack of Specifics

One of Water for Eastern Oregon's immediate goals is community education. Michael Graham, the group's chair, highlighted the complexity of the hydrology involved and the importance of having accurate information for effective solutions. While the organization expresses interest in long-term solutions, critics argue that their plans lack specificity.

Water for Eastern Oregon chose a 501(c)(4) status to maintain accountability to its members through a board structure. The group relies on the Lower Umatilla Basin Groundwater Management Area Committee, formed over 30 years ago, to find solutions. The committee, however, has faced challenges, with nitrate pollution levels continuing to rise despite various efforts.

Consultant Involvement & Skepticism

Water for Eastern Oregon has enlisted environmental consultant Justin Green, a former administrator with the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality, to advise on science-based projects. Critics, including environmental groups like Food & Water Watch, view the organization as a "greenwashing campaign" and question its commitment to reforming agricultural practices.

Voluntary vs. Mandatory Measures

The heart of the issue lies in the disagreement over the effectiveness of voluntary measures. Environmental groups argue that the agricultural industry, particularly confined animal feeding operations, needs mandatory rules to drive meaningful change. They question the industry's commitment to public health, labeling it as "agricultural exceptionalism."

As Lower Umatilla Basin grapples with nitrate pollution, the formation of Water for Eastern Oregon signifies industry acknowledgment of its role. However, skepticism persists among environmental groups regarding the effectiveness of voluntary measures and the industry's commitment to reform. Finding a lasting solution requires collaborative efforts, transparency, and a balance between industry interests and environmental protection. The region's future depends on navigating these complexities to ensure clean drinking water for all.


Antonio Sierra (January 24, 2024). Oregon agriculture companies offer help with Lower Umatilla Basin nitrate pollution, but skeptics remain


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