Idaho Wellhead Nitrate Sampling
Water is the lifeblood of Idaho! Idaho ranks second in the United States in water use, only to California. Our traditional industries such as agriculture, forestry, and mining are all water dependent. And a large portion of tourist revenues in Idaho are tied to attractions with water. In addition to the economy, high quality water is essential to Idaho's recreational opportunities and wildlands. We must protect water quality to maintain our high standard of living and uniquely rich quality of life in Idaho.
Over 90 percent of Idahoans rely on groundwater for their drinking water. Surveys in Idaho have generally shown that groundwater quality is not a widespread problem.
The Idaho Private Wellhead Sampling Program was initiated and coordinated by the Idaho Farm Bureau Federation (IFB). In conjunction with local county Farm Bureau branches, 2,422 private wellhead samples have been collected from farmers and rural residents in 22 counties between 1990 and 1995.
This program has truly been a cooperative effort as several different government agencies and the Idaho Farm Bureau Federation, a private membership-oriented organization, united to make the program a success. The Idaho Department of Agriculture (IDA), Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS), local Health Districts, and the University of Idaho Cooperative Extension System (UI CES) assisted with program logistics, sample bottle distribution, and dissemination of information. The University of Idaho College of Agriculture's Analytical Laboratory (UI LAB) had major roles in planning and designing the quality assurance phase of the analytical part of the program and analyzed all samples for nitrates. The Idaho Division of Environmental Quality (DEQ) designed the quality assurance plan for the field effort, the questionnaire, and sampling procedures for the public. The United States Geological Survey (USGS) assisted with the collection of samples for quality assurance.
Why Conduct This Program?
Groundwater monitoring surveys across the U.S. have shown that agrichemicals such as nitrogen fertilizers are contaminating many sources of groundwater. Idaho surveys show that nitrates are being found in several major aquifers.
The Idaho DEQ has identified many aquifers in the state as vulnerable groundwater
resources. This is a major concern because groundwater is the source of drinking
water for more than 90 percent of Idahoans. Some of the factors contributing to
vulnerable areas in Idaho include:
A total of 2,422 samples was collected between 1990 and 1995. Counties samples were as follows:
|North||Southwest||Southcentral and Southeast|
Six percent of the sampled wells in Idaho contained NO3-N levels greater than 10 ppm, which is the state and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) drinking water standard. Forty-four percent of the sampled wells contained less than 2.0 ppm NO3-N. This study shows that:
The wells containing less than 2.0 ppm NO3-N are in excellent shape. There is no reason to believe that man-induced practices are adding nitrates to groundwater in these areas since low levels of NO3-N (0.5 to 2.0 ppm) may be natural in some parts of the aquifers.
Man probably has impacted water quality where NO3-N levels exceed 2.0 ppm. Several factors such as agriculture and poorly operating septic tanks may cause nitrate levels in groundwater to increase.
In areas where NO3-N values range between 2.0 and 4.9 ppm (35 percent of sampled wells), agriculturalists should implement best management practices (BMPs) to prevent further increases in groundwater NO3-N values.
Where nitrate-N values range between 5.0 and 9.9 ppm NO3-N (15 percent of sampled wells), the nitrate-N concentration is still safe and acceptable for human consumption. These wells should be sampled again within a 2- to 3-year period. Nitrogen fertilizer is the likely source of elevated N levels in groundwater in many Idaho areas. Also, animal wastes, septic systems, and plant residues may be responsible for elevated NO3-N values. In these situations, you should consider changing N fertilizers and irrigation management.
Take action if your well contains more than 10.0 ppm NO3-N. If an infant (<6 months of age) is living in a household with a well containing more than 10.0 ppm NO3-N, consider alternative water sources or water treatment devices. Also, well owners should obtain additional analyses to detect the presence of other agricultural chemicals.
Summary by Regions
From this sampling, water quality appears better in northern Idaho than other regions of the state. A total of 142 water samples was collected from wells in Benewah, Bonner, and Latah counties. Less than 3 percent of the wells contained NO3-N values that exceeded the drinking water standard. In addition, 76 percent of the wells contained less than 2.0 ppm NO3-N; 13 percent of the wells contained NO3-N values between 2.0 and 4.9 ppm; and 11 percent had values greater than 5.0 ppm (50 percent of the drinking water standard).
Nitrate values in groundwater were higher in southwestern Idaho than other regions of the state. Still, 91 percent of the samples did not exceed the drinking water standard. A total of 1,206 samples was collected from Ada, Canyon, Elmore, Gem, Owyhee, Payette, and Washington counties. About 9 percent of the wells exceeded the 10.0 ppm NO3-N drinking water standard. More than 59 percent of the wells had NO3-N levels above 2.0 ppm; 34 percent contained NO3-N values between 2.0 and 4.9 ppm; and 25 percent of the wells had values greater than 5.0 ppm.
Southcentral and Southeastern Idaho
A total of 1,074 water samples was collected from wells from Bonneville, Butte, Cassia, Custer, Fremont, Jefferson, Jerome, Lemhi, Madison, Minidoka, Teton, and Twin Falls counties. Only 3 percent of the wells contained NO3-N values that exceeded the drinking water standard. Conversely, 42 percent of the wells contained NO3-N values less than 2.0 ppm; 39 percent of the wells contained NO3-N values between 2.0 and 5.0 ppm; and 18 percent had values greater than 5.0 ppm. Ninety-seven percent of the wells meet the drinking water standard in the region; however, humans have impacted the nitrate content in at least 57 percent of the wells.
Quality control in this sampling project was the top priority. Blind spiked samples and blanks were randomly dispersed with farmer-provided samples to assure top quality. In addition, in some cases, duplicate farm wellhead samples were included. Over 1,300 quality control samples were part of this study.
Nitrates were determined on water samples by the University of Idaho College of Agriculture's Analytical Laboratory in Moscow. After collection, a preservative was added to the sample before shipment to Moscow. Samples were run in the laboratory within 72 hours after collection. The most modern analytical techniques and equipment were used in this operation. A high degree of confidence should be placed on the numbers obtained from these samples.
According to this survey, the majority of Idaho's wells (94 percent) are producing water that meets the state and U.S. EPA drinking water standard for nitrate-N.
For the most part, these results are reassuring to Idahoans. To deal with specific and geographic problems, use proactive approaches that will protect and enhance water quality while ensuring the survival of Idaho's number one industry--agriculture. Where NO3-N levels are high, use BMPs to apply N-containing materials.
The University of Idaho Cooperative Extension System has over 140 faculty strategically located throughout the state, including 84 agricultural educators stationed in 42 of 44 counties. In addition, faculty (specialists) are located on campus in Moscow and at research and extension centers in Aberdeen, Caldwell, Idaho Falls, Kimberly, Parma, Sandpoint, Tetonia, and Twin Falls.
This brochure, WQ-33, was prepared by R. L. Mahler and K. A.
Loeffelman, Soil Science Division, University of Idaho, Moscow, Idaho 83844.
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All contents copyright © 1997-2003. College of Agricultural and Life Sciences, University of Idaho. All rights reserved. Revised: January 3, 2003