Pollution Rising in Snake River Aquifer



A recent report by the U.S. Geological Survey found that pollution is increasing in the Snake River aquifer, which provides drinking water to a fifth of Idahoans. 

Boise State Public Radio reported that USGS hydrologist Kenneth Skinner says the Snake River aquifer is one of the cleanest in the country, but nitrate from agricultural fertilizers and dairies is growing. Nitrate can cause serious health problems, especially for young children, when found in drinking water.

In the USGS' study of the aquifer, scientists found that four percent of the testing locations have levels that exceed drinking water standards. The areas with the greatest nitrate concentrations, according to Skinner, are around the Paul and Minidoka area.

"There’s a lot of nitrogen inputs coming in that area, but the ground water there is just moving along slowly," Skinner told BSPR. "So those nitrogen inputs have time to hit the ground water table and start working their way down into depth were the pumps are for people.”

He added that pollution increase is slowing as farmers improve their practices, but it will take a long time for existing nitrate to leave the groundwater.

"One scenario we ran was if they all just quit farming and the dairy men all went away, how long would it take to show up in the ground water?” Skinner said. “And in [Minidoka County] it was about 40 or 50 years to see a change in nitrate concentration.”

Skinner's previous studies show that within 30 years, an even bigger slice of Minidoka County as well as a portion of Twin Falls County around Buhl could be facing undrinkable water.

The Snake River aquifer faces another threat in the form of spent nuclear fuel that may be deposited at the Idaho National Laboratory. Boise Weekly reported on that possibility on Jan. 15 when former governors Cecil Andrus and Phil Bat held a press conference condemning Gov. C.L. "Butch" Otter's attempt to bring 37.5 tons of nuclear waste from around the country.

"If there was contamination in that water," Batt said, "it would cause our potato industry to fold up. It would cause fish farms to fold up in Magic Valley. It would create all kind of problems with municipal water."

"It could gain $10 million in revenue, but that isn't one tenth of one percent of what you're gambling against if any of that waste gets lose in the aquifer," Andrus added.