Evidence of groundwater contamination in the Lower Valley has been ignored for years, leaving poor rural residents exposed to health risks and nowhere to turn
OUTLOOK — Like many rural Lower Yakima Valley residents, Norma and Leonardo Solano used their well water for years with little thought.
But in January, Norma Solano saw a television report about contaminated well water at nearby Outlook Elementary School. The water had tested high in nitrates, an odorless compound found in water and soil that can pose health risks.
For days afterward, she tried to learn how widespread the problem might be.
“I called the school and they said the problem was just at the school,” Solano recalls. “I left three messages at the health district and didn’t hear back. Nobody came around with any information in either English or Spanish.
“Maybe they don’t worry, but I do.”
As news of the school’s water problem spread, a company selling filtration systems came looking for customers. It tested the Solanos’ well and found unacceptable levels of nitrates — just like at the school. It then tried to sell the Solanos a $4,000 filtration system. “We are poor people. We cannot afford that,” says Solano, who works as many hours as she can get at Fiesta Foods in Sunnyside. Her husband is a farm worker and tends a few goats on the side.
The couple now spends $200 a month for bottled water, the equivalent of more than $1 of every $10 they earn, as they struggle to keep up with the mortgage on their 1910 wood-frame farmhouse.
Their situation isn’t unique.
A little noticed scientific study six years ago found that one in five of 195 wells tested outside five Lower Valley communities contained levels of nitrates above federal safety limits.