For many local residents who rely on unseen wells for their drinking water, out of sight literally means out of mind.

For many local residents who rely on unseen wells for their drinking water, out of sight literally means out of mind.

But Audrey Eldridge and Amy Patton are shining a spotlight down local wells by holding workshops in Jackson and Josephine counties.

The free "Care and Feeding of Your Well and Septic System" class, offered by the Oregon Department of Enviaronmental Quality, focuses on nitrate contamination in wells.

Data compiled by the DEQ and the Health Division of the Oregon Department of Human Services on wells from Ashland to Gold Hill show that Jackson County leads the state when it comes to high nitrate levels.

Of the nearly 1,200 wells tested for nitrates when a property is sold — as required by a 1999 state law — 23 had nitrate levels topping 10 parts per million, exceeding the federal Environmental Protection Agency drinking-water standard. The highest levels were recorded in Central Point and Medford.

Thirty-four other wells in the survey registered between 7 and 10 ppm and 296 wells contained moderate levels of 2 to 7 ppm. The nitrate levels in the remainder — 838 wells — were 2 ppm or less, indicating the levels are insignificant.

Nitrate levels that exceed the EPA's drinking water standard may pose serious health concerns for infants and pregnant or nursing women, according to DEQ.

"We want people to understand what it means if nitrates are found in their well," said Eldridge, a DEQ hydrogeologist. "If you have nitrates, chances are you have something else coming in, as well."

"One of the problems with groundwater is you can't see it — so it is hard to get people excited about it," said Patton, a geologist and environmental consultant in the Rogue Valley. Unless they realize the water they are drinking is contaminated, she noted.

"We look at nitrogen as an indicator contaminant," Patton said.

"Nitrogen is not like arsenic or radon, where you can get it from the rocks," she said. "It is generally from a human source."

Nitrates can come from a variety of sources, including underground storage tanks, landfills, industry, wastewater, farm manure, septic systems and agricultural applications, according to the DEQ.

Jackson and Josephine are not the only Oregon counties where concern over nitrate levels in wells has surfaced. Others include Marion, Linn, Lane, Deschutes, Crook, Umatilla and Malheur.

Three groundwater-management areas have been established to monitor well contaminants in those areas, but none in Jackson and Josephine counties.

Although some areas in Jackson County, particularly those with shallow wells, have shown high concentrations of nitrates over the years, there doesn't appear to be an increase in the number of problem wells, said John Neilson, owner of Medford-based Neilson Research Corp., a water-testing firm in business in the Rogue Valley for nearly 30 years.

"I haven't seen any substantial increase in the county in recent years," he said. "It's very rare when you see nitrate levels above 10 parts per million."

However, keeping tabs on any well contamination is prudent, he said.

Eldridge and Patton have been volunteering their time for the workshops in an effort to learn more about potential contamination levels in local wells.

In addition to a workshop scheduled for Saturday, April 23, in Ashland, classes are set for the Master Gardener Spring Fair at the Jackson County Expo. Others will be held in Shady Cove, Rogue River, Eagle Point, Cave Junction and Grants Pass. Sessions already have been held in Medford, Central Point, Gold Hill, Ruch and Applegate.

"We are trying to get all the communities in the Rogue Basin involved," Patton said. "We're trying to get more information on where the nitrate levels are, but it has been difficult to get permission from well owners where contamination is located. We are hoping these workshops will help us with that."

If a high nitrate level is discovered in a well, the homeowner is encouraged to get a water filter capable of removing it, Eldridge said, adding that washing in high nitrate water is not a health concern.

"You can irrigate your lawn with it — the grass loves it," she said.

Information on wells, water testing and septic systems is available at http://wellwater.oregonstate.edu.

For additional information about protecting your groundwater, check out the DEQ's website at http://www.deq.state.or.us/lab/wqm/groundwater.htm.

Paul Fattig is a reporter for the Mail Tribune. Reach him at 541-776-4496 or email him at pfattig@mailtribune.com.

Medford-Ashland-wells