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ISU researchers find increased nitrate levels in private wells

Researchers at Idaho State University are testing private wells in the Portneuf Valley for nitrate levels. They have found that about two-thirds of the wells have nitrate coming from septic sources.

If too many septic sources are moving higher levels of nitrate into aquifers, nitrate could be getting into drinking water. High levels of nitrate can be dangerous to a person’s health.

“We care about nitrate because it can have a health risk,” said Sarah Godsey, assistant professor of geosciences at ISU. “In particular, it can have a health risk for newborns and pregnant women. It can cause what’s known as Blue Baby Syndrome if nitrate levels are too high.”

Blue Baby Syndrome is where tissues in a baby’s body can be deprived of oxygen and it could cause respiratory problems.

Godsey said nitrate is a naturally occurring substance and it comes from the waste in septic systems. So any system could potentially be a source.

“A common misconception is that nitrate is coming out of septic systems that are leaking or broken or not well-maintained well in some way. That’s actually not the case,” Godsey said.

The affected areas researchers found were the lower Portneuf Valley, areas like Mink Creek, Johnny Creek, South Fifth, Portneuf Gap and Old Town. Godsey said they did not go into Inkom or test many levels in Chubbuck. City wells or city water sources were also not tested in this phase – only private wells.

Godsey said the important thing about this study is that now they were able to pinpoint exactly where the increased nitrate is coming from. It can usually come from agricultural sources, septic sources or atmospheric. So to pinpoint the source is a big key and the importance behind the study Godsey said.

She said well owners were notified of test results. She said the best thing private well owners can do is to have their wells tested regularly, especially if they live in the Lower Portneuf Valley area.

You can also contact the Public Health Agency or the Department of Environmental Quality for questions or concerns about your wells.

Godsey said this study is part of a larger project and it will continue this summer when researchers test city wells.

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