12 Easy Things to Protect Drinking Water

  1. Try using nontoxic things for household cleaning.
  2. Use a slow release fertilizer and only the amount of fertilizer you need. More is not better.
  3. Use pesticide and fertilizers sparingly, with caution, and avoiding application before a rainy period where possible.
  4. Be very careful with and always clean up any spills of things like gasoline, solvents, and deck stains.
  5. Learn about the watershed that you live in and become active with the local Watershed Council.
  6. Conserve water by making small changes.
  7. Maintain natural buffer areas of native plants between your property and any stream, lake, or drainage way.
  8. Be a pooper scooper for both small and large animals:
    • Chickens
    • Dogs
    • Horses
    • Llamas
  9. Cover manure piles and keep them away from any streams or wells.
  10. Keep your septic system healthy - protect the drainfield, pump the tank, and lower your water use. Never flush old medicine down the toilet.
  11. Test your well water every year to check levels of nitrate and coliform bacteria. Nitrate levels vary over the year, so keep a journal of the results. This is especially important if you are in an area with known problems.
  12. Take a Rural Living Basics class from Oregon State University Extension Service to learn about how to take care of your well and septic system.
Nontoxic Things for Household Cleaning
Non-toxic cleaners can work just as well, if not better, than harsh chemicals that can potentially enter groundwater or surface water. Most conventional cleaning products are petroleum-based with numerous health and environmental implications. There are an increasing number of green and environmentally friendly cleaning products that provide equally satisfying results as traditional cleaning agents. These products are increasingly available at local grocery and home stores. You can also create effective cleaning solutions with supplies you likely already have in your home.

Baking soda, vinegar, and hot water work well as drain cleaner, while vinegar and hot water work well as an all-purpose cleaner, and citrus solvent creates that fresh scent. If you use toxic cleaning products, buy only what you need, use them sparingly, and make sure remaining supplies are stored properly.

Slow Release Fertilizer
Applying excess fertilizer will cause some to be absorbed by plants while leaving the majority to be leached into groundwater or nearby waterbodies. Some fertilizers, such as urea formaldehyde, magnesium ammonium phosphate, and coated fertilizers release nutrients slowly to supply plant food for an extended period of time. These fertilizers are ideal for grass, potted and bed plants, and limit the amount of fertilizer washed away from the application site. Avoid using fertilizers in the late Fall or other times of the year when plants are not actively growing. Some organic fertilizers such as blood meal, tankage, sewage sludge, manure, and seafood waste are also good slow release fertilizers but can also be over-applied causing contamination .

Pesticide & Fertilizers Sparingly
Although we can't see it happening, fertilizers and pesticides can easily leach into groundwater, or run off the surface during storms to nearby waterways. Fertilizers, such as nitrate and phosphorus, should be applied only during the growing season. This ensures the uptake of nutrients by plant roots and minimizes loss to groundwater and streams. Nitrate is showing up in groundwater at concentrations that are a public health concern in parts of the Willamette Valley. Both nitrogen and phosphorus based fertilizers are known to contribute to algae blooms when they enter surface waters.

Pesticides have been detected in many of our region's waterways and, depending on the compound, can cause significant harm to a wide range of organisms, including humans. Some pesticides break down very slowly and can persist in the environment for years after application. Take care to use these products sparingly, apply at times when they will not pose a risk to our environment, and use the least toxic material possible to protect groundwater and streams. To learn more about controlling pests in more of an environmentally friendly way check out these websites:
Chemical Care & Cleanup
It is easy for gasoline, solvents, and other chemicals to run off of the land and into waterbodies, especially during rainy months. In addition, these contaminants can also seep into the ground and make their way into groundwater supplies. Therefore it is critical that everyone takes responsibility for safely disposing of and cleaning up any potential contaminants that could pollute drinking water supplies. Take care to store your chemicals carefully and ideally with double containment so that if the primary container leaks, the spill is contained by another container and doesn't directly go into the ground or reach the water.

If something does spill, clean it up immediately, carefully, and safely with absorbent materials. If a spill is large or you are unsure of how to effectively clean it up, please call the Oregon Emergency Response System at 800-452-0311. Finally, dispose of hazardous materials safely by taking them to household hazardous waste collection sites or to specific collection events. For more details on locating disposal options near you visit the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality website.

Watershed Information
Watershed councils are non-regulatory local entities that work with a variety of watershed stakeholders helping to protect water quality, and fish and wildlife habitats by improving conditions within a watershed. Stakeholders may include:
  • Bureau of Land Management
  • Farmers
  • Forest Service
  • Industrial timber owners
  • Landowners
  • Other local organizations
Many councils hold monthly meetings which are open to the public and are a great way to find out more about what watershed councils are doing in your area. To find out more, visit the Network of Oregon Watershed Councils website.

Conserve Water
Making small changes around your house can have a big impact on the amount of water we use on an annual basis. A few tips to consider include:
  • Maintain your water conveyance system to prevent leaks. If the pump cycles on and off when water isn't being used, you likely have a leak.
  • Install water-saving devices:
    • Front-loading washing machines
    • Low flow showerheads
    • Low-flow toilets
    • Water efficient dishwasher
  • Check for and fix leaky faucets inside and outside your home.
  • Do not run water continuously while brushing teeth, washing hands, or shaving.
  • Run full loads of dishes and laundry.
  • Reduce water use in your lawn or garden during periods of rainfall. Rain sensors on compatible automatic watering systems will do this automatically.
  • Use low-flow outdoor irrigation devices such as drip irrigation systems.
  • Landscape with low-water need or native plants.
  • Allow lawns to go dormant during dry periods.
  • Limit car washing and use a shutoff nozzle on the hose when you do. Wash your car on the lawn (with biodegradable soap) to allow infiltration into the ground. Better yet, go to one of the self-serve coin-operated facilities so the wash water drains into the sanitary sewer system.
  • Divert runoff from roofs, sidewalks, and driveways into rain gardens or yard areas to recharge groundwater supplies.
  • Install a rainwater harvesting system to store surplus rain water from roofs for outside watering.
Additional water conservation information is available from the Water Resources Department of Oregon.

Natural Buffer Areas
A riparian area is an area of land directly adjacent to a stream or river. Riparian areas provide important natural functions, such as filtering pollutants, preventing stream bank erosion, providing wildlife habitat, and shading the water (which helps lower temperatures for aquatic life). In order to keep these areas functioning properly, it is important to keep them in as 'natural' a state as possible. This means keeping native vegetation intact and/or planting native plants in areas that have previously been cleared. Effective riparian buffers widths can vary depending on the width of the stream, slope, etc., but in general, wider buffers provide more protection for water quality.

Pooper Scooper
Animal waste can contain pathogens such as Giardia, Salmonella, Cryptosporidium and fecal coliform that can move easily to groundwater and surface waters if not handled properly. Water contaminated by animal waste is unsafe for swimming and drinking. Symptoms can range from diarrhea, other gastrointestinal distresses, skin rash, chest pain, and even death. One of the best ways to reduce the risks associated with animal waste is to scoop the poop and empty it into the toilet to be sent to the wastewater treatment plant, or secure it in a bag and toss in the garbage. If you have a large number of animals, composting the animal waste is feasible IF your compost pile reaches a high enough temperature to kill off pathogens. If you will be composting more than 100 tons of manure per year, you'll need to obtain a composting permit from Oregon Department of Environmental Quality.

Additional Actions for Rural Residents
Cover Manure Piles
Uncovered manure provides a direct pathway for bacteria, pathogens, and nitrate to make their way into groundwater and surface water. When rainwater hits an uncovered pile of manure it can cause leaching of water soluble nitrogen compounds, such as urea and nitrate, into groundwater. In addition, it can carry bacteria, excess nutrients, and sediment into nearby ponds and creeks. Manure piles should be at least 100 feet from wellheads and waterways, on higher ground, and away from drainage ways.

Covering piles with tarps or structures prevents runoff and leaching issues during the rainy season. Covered manure is also much easier to manage on site and can be composted and used as a nutrient-rich soil amendment.

Keep Your Septic System Healthy
Septic systems are wastewater treatment systems that are frequently used in rural areas where centralized sewage systems are not available. A basic system consists of a septic tank and drainfield. Wastewater from a home flows into the septic tank, where heavier solids sink to the bottom and lighter materials float on top. Bacteria gradually decompose some of these solids, but the remaining accumulation needs to be pumped out on a periodic basis. The waste liquids, or effluent, in the middle of the tank flow out into the drainfield. The drainfield consists of perforated pipes which discharge the effluent into the ground where it percolates into the soil and is filtered and cleaned before reaching the groundwater table.

If maintained properly, septic systems can be very effective at treating domestic waste. However, failure to take care of a septic system can result in the release of untreated sewage into the groundwater and potentially into rivers and streams. This effluent can contain bacteria, nutrients, metals, and other contaminants that degrade water quality. For more information on septic systems, see the OSU Extension Service website, and/or the Department of Environmental Quality website.

Test Your Well Water Every Year
Tests for nitrate and coliform are necessary to ensure that wells are producing safe drinking water. Coliform tests are used to identify potential contamination by other bacteria and viruses. Higher levels of nitrate can negatively affect pregnant women, infants and nursing mothers, and may be an indirect indicator of the presence of pesticides or chemical contaminants.
  • Have your well tested by an accredited lab. A list of accredited labs statewide can be found online.
  • The OSU Extension Service also provides free nitrate screening at many of their events. For a calendar of events, visit the OSU Extension Service website.
  • If a test indicates coliform bacteria, the well may need to be shock chlorinated and then resampled for residual chlorine. For instructions on properly treating a contaminated well, visit the Oregon Public Health Department website.
  • It is important to remember that the presence of a contaminant is not always a health threat, so discuss your results with a laboratory or local health department.
  • It is also a good idea to keep your well records, including a copy of your well log, pump information, water quality, and flow testing information in one safe place. Things to keep in a file include:
    • Copy of the well construction contract and receipt
    • Pump installation or maintenance receipts or information
    • Well maintenance receipts or information
    • Copy of the Well Log (Water Supply Well Report)
    • Water quality test results
    • Water level measurements collected
  • The OSU Extension Service provides a wealth of information on wells and septic systems, including information on water quality, tests, pollutants, and suggestions and tips for having your well tested. You can find this information on the OSU Extension Services website.
Rural Living Basics Class
The OSU Extension Service provides a number of resources for property owners with regards to wells and septic systems. Among these resources are a series of Rural Living Basics classes that provide practical information on all aspects of rural living. Classes involving well and septic systems will typically involve presentations on how to maintain functional and healthy systems, and provide free nitrate screening for well water for those participants who bring in water samples. Classes are free, but space is generally limited so reserving a spot is recommended. For more information and to view a calendar of events, visit the Benton County OSU Extension Service website.