Letter Re: Water Quality in the Inland Northwest

I am just getting ready to explore the Pacific Northwest.  What has come to my attention is the horrific nuclear  (Hanford) and toxic metal (mining) contamination of all the rivers in Washington, Oregon and Idaho.  The Columbia River and its tributaries are a toxic soup. Even Lake Roosevelt, above Spokane is filled with heavy metals due to mining in Canada. 

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Thanks for all your hard work. – Barbara H.

JWR Replies: To start, the Hanford Nuclear reservation sits right next to the Columbia River. It is down river from Idaho. Furthermore, the Columbia is down river from all of the rivers in Oregon and southern Washington–they are feed into the Columbia and out to the sea. The contamination at Hanford is now a non-issue. The water there has been studied in excruciating detail, and at great expense. To the best of my knowledge the Hanford Weapons Lab never affected anyone’s drinking water outside of the immediate Tri-Cities (Pasco, Kennewick, and Richland) area.

Some key points, in summary form:

If you want to avoid mercury contamination then simply don’t drink river water or live in a current or former mining district.  All of the rest of the drinking water in the Inland Northwest region is fine. In fact it is some of the best water in the country.

Heavy metal contamination is indeed a concern, but in the Inland Northwest, the culprit is usually just iron, and that has few deleterious health affects. (The trigger for hemochromatosis is genetic, not environmental.)

There is some arsenic contamination, but most of that comes from arsenic in the bedrock, rather than from industrial use.

The radioactive contamination that shows on this map is from uranium in the bedrock, rather than from careless atom bomb scientists at Hanford.

I’ve had few queries about radium in groundwater. The USGS reports: “Elevated concentrations of combined radium were more common in groundwater in the eastern and central United States than in other regions of the Nation. About 98 percent of the wells that contained combined radium at concentrations greater than the [maximum contaminant level] MCL were east of the High Plains.”

Another issue is nitrates from chemical fertilizers. But again, overall, the Northwest has some of the lowest levels of contamination in the country.

Ditto for pesticide contamination–at least in the Redoubt portion of the northwest.

Ditto for salt water intrusion and salt buildup.

Ditto for acid rain.

Ditto for potential contamination from hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”)

Ditto for organic and industrial toxins.

Ditto for declining aquifers.

In conclusion, the Inland Northwest is far from perfect, but the very low population density and the absence of heavy industries make its water quality better than most of the eastern U.S. In essence, since the region was settled later and settled more sparsely, people have simply had less time and fewer opportunities to mess it up.

If you are worried about “toxic soup” rivers, then look elsewhere. There aren’t many in the Pacific Northwest.