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Oregon's Drinking Water Protection Program

Federal Program

The 1986 Amendments to the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA) required States to develop Wellhead Protection Programs (WHPPs) in order to "protect wellhead areas within their jurisdiction from contaminants which may have any adverse effect on the health of persons."  Section 1428 of the SDWA further defined Wellhead Protection Areas (WHPAs) as the "surface and subsurface area surrounding a water well or wellfield, supplying a public water system, through which contaminants are reasonably likely to move toward and reach such water well or wellfield."  Stated another way, the WHPA is the area on the surface where a contaminant, if released in some manner, may be transported down to the aquifer and be transported by groundwater to the well or wellfield.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) published guidance to the States providing technical assistance in developing WHPPs.  Within that guidance, seven critical elements were identified as necessary components of any State-developed program:

  • Specify the duties of State agencies, local governmental entities, and public water supply systems with respect to development and implementation of programs;
  • For each wellhead, determine the wellhead protection area based on all reasonable hydrogeologic information on groundwater flow, recharge, and discharge, and other information the State deems necessary to adequately determine the wellhead protection area;
  • Identify within each wellhead protection area all potential anthropogenic (man-made) sources of contaminants which may have any adverse affect on the health of persons;
  • Describe a program that contains, as appropriate, technical assistance, financial assistance, implementation of control measures, education, training, and demonstration projects to protect the water supply within the protection areas from such contaminants;
  • Include contingency plans for the location and provision of alternate drinking water supplies for each public water system in the event of well or wellfield contamination by such contaminants;
  • Include a requirement that consideration be given to all potential sources of such contaminants within the expected wellhead area of a new water well which serves a public water supply system; and
  • Encourage public participation to the maximum extent possible, including but not limited to the establishment of technical and citizen's advisory committees and including notice and opportunity for public hearings on the State program before submittal to the Administrator.

The overall structure of each State's WHPP could be tailored to State-specific implementation issues, as well as the manner in which the program is administered.  In order to ensure that each State's WHPP met the requirement of the SDWA, States were required to submit their WHPP to EPA for approval.

Oregon Background

Protection of Oregon's groundwater resources is critical to accommodate a growing population and to support the continued economic health of the State.  Groundwater is a critical natural resource that provides Oregonians with water for drinking, agriculture, and industry.  Based on information from the U.S. Geological Survey, it is estimated that Oregonians use an average of 700,000,000 gallons of groundwater every day.  Almost half of the State's population (1.4 million) is dependent on groundwater for their daily needs, while 77 percent (2.3 million) of the State's population is at least partially dependent upon groundwater at home, work, or school.

There are approximately 3,450 public water systems in Oregon, defined as systems having four or more service connections or who serve 10 or more individuals per day for at least 60 days per year.  Approximately 88 percent of Oregon's public water systems rely at least in part on groundwater as a permanent or backup supply of drinking water.  This reliance on groundwater will likely increase because of the decreasing availability of surface water and the significantly higher cost of treating surface water for drinking water purposes.

The availability of clean public drinking water supplies is fundamental to the location and viability of communities.  For obvious reasons, population centers developed in areas where drinking water was safe and abundant.  In Oregon, these areas are the river valleys where highly permeable sand and gravel aquifers are near the surface.  Unfortunately, the proximity of these water resources to the surface, which made them desirable as sources of drinking water and irrigation water, also makes them highly susceptible to contamination from the very surface activities that are associated with a growing population.  The majority of wells in Oregon are shallow (<200 feet) and are located in unconfined aquifers in Oregon's river valleys.  These extensive areas are among the most sensitive to pollution.  As of late 1995, the Oregon Health Services (OHS) had reported detections of at least one contaminant, other then coliform bacteria, in 383 active public water systems in the State.  The most common contaminants found are nitrate above 5.0 milligrams/liter and organic chemicals.  In addition to these detections, the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) reports that there are approximately 50 individual public water systems which are currently threatened by groundwater contamination from active environmental cleanup sites in Oregon.

Although the percentage of Oregon's public water systems that have detected contaminants is low (10 percent), the impact on an individual system can be severe.  At the minimum, there will be increased monitoring costs and a loss of public confidence in the water supply.  If the concentrations exceed the federal drinking water standard (= the maximum contaminant level or MCL) for that contaminant, the water system must install expensive treatment or seek an alternate source, e.g., drilling a new well.  As this cannot be done quickly or cheaply, there may be interim measures such as requiring residents to use bottled water until the problem is fixed.

In nearly all cases, it can be demonstrated that preventing contamination from occurring in the first place is very cost effective.  The expenses associated with developing a program to prevent contamination are a fraction of the cost of study, remediation, treatment and cleanup.  In one small community in Oregon, contamination of their two drinking water wells resulted in costs in excess of $500,000.  In the two-year interim between discovery of the problem and the installation of a treatment unit residents had to use bottled water for drinking and cooking purposes.  The estimated cost of implementing a protection program is less than $10,000.

Oregon's Program

In 1986, the DEQ was designated as the lead agency for development and implementation of Oregon's Wellhead Protection Program.  Natural resource agencies developed and gained approval of a comprehensive groundwater protection plan (Oregon Groundwater Protection Act of 1989) in which wellhead protection was included as an integral part.  Funding became available in 1990 allowing the DEQ and other State agencies to initiate program development.  The DEQ, OHS, Water Resources Department, Department of Agriculture, Department of Land Conservation and Development, and other agencies joined with public citizens to form an advisory committee to develop Oregon's Wellhead Protection Program.  After an initial attempt in 1993 to establish a mandatory program failed in the legislature, DEQ formed a second advisory committee to develop a voluntary Wellhead Protection Program.  EPA granted approval of the program in September 1996, calling it a "...national model for empowering communities to protect sources of drinking water."  The DEQ and OHS have adopted rules addressing their respective responsibilities within the program and have developed a guidance manual designed to facilitate implementation at the community level.  Key concepts used in the development of the program are listed below:

  • Create a voluntary program with enough incentives to encourage participation;
  • Provide a detailed Guidance Manual to enable local plan development with minimal assistance;
  • Incorporate all stakeholders in the decision-making process;
  • Provide flexibility in program to account for diverse local conditions;
  • Utilize Oregon's land use planning process (DLCD) but maintain voluntary status for systems serving less than 10,000 people;
  • Maximize linkage with other State programs;
  • Encourage local responsibility to protect the public drinking water system; and
  • Promote public awareness of the relationship between water quality and land use activities through public education.

The principle agencies involved with the Wellhead Protection Program in Oregon are the DEQ and the OHS.  The OHS has the responsibility of certifying the delineation to ensure that they have been accomplished within the guidelines of the Guidance Manual, to provide assistance in developing the Water System's Contingency Plan, and in planning for new groundwater sources.  The DEQ has the responsibility of assisting in the Water System's potential contaminant inventory and the development of management strategies.  The DEQ also has the overall responsibility of certifying the Community's wellhead protection plan.  Both agencies participate in promoting public awareness.

1996 Amendments to the SDWA

The 1996 Amendments to the SDWA require States to develop a Source Water Assessment Program for public water systems.  The principle elements of State programs will include delineation, source inventory, susceptibility determinations and public information.  States can use set-aside funds from the newly established Drinking Water State Revolving Loan Fund to accomplish this task.

Significantly, the 1996 Amendments address surface water sources as well as those derived from groundwater.  The protection of surface water-supplied public water sources will be a natural extension of the Wellhead Protection Program in Oregon.  Many of the same tools for protection can be used for all sources of water.  To emphasize the fact that the 1996 Amendments call for gathering information leading to the protection of both surface and groundwaters, Oregon now refers to the composite package as Drinking Water Protection.

Oregon is in the process now of developing the Drinking Water Protection Program through the expansion of the old Wellhead Protection Program by the incorporation of surface water sources and a more formal recognition of the natural linkage between these two water reservoirs.  Although the State can rely on its existing Wellhead Protection Program to address groundwater sources of drinking water, new efforts will have to take place to define a program that addresses surface water sources of drinking water.  The DEQ plans on convening a Citizen's Advisory Committee to accomplish this task.  Given that there are already several watershed evaluation programs in place, efforts will be taken to incorporate those aspects of the programs that have applicability to drinking water protection.  The 1996 Amendments afford Oregon the opportunity to work towards a state-wide effort to protect valuable drinking water resources whether they are derived from surface water sources, from groundwater sources, or both.