More than 60 percent of the population of Washington State uses ground water for their drinking and cooking needs. Nitrate concentrations in ground water are elevated in parts of the State as a result of various land-use practices, including fertilizer application, dairy operations and ranching, and septic-system use. Shallow wells generally are more vulnerable to nitrate contamination than deeper wells (Williamson and others, 1998; Ebbert and others, 2000).
In order to protect public health, the Washington State Department of Health requires that public water systems regularly measure nitrate in their wells. Public water systems serving more than 25 people collect water samples at least annually; systems serving from 2 to 14 people collect water samples at least every 3 years. Private well owners serving one residence may be required to sample when the well is first drilled, but are unregulated after that. As a result, limited information is available to citizens and public health officials about potential exposure to elevated nitrate concentrations for people whose primary drinking-water sources are private wells. The U.S. Geological Survey and Washington State Department of Health collaborated to examine water-quality data from public water systems and develop models that calculate the probability of detecting elevated nitrate concentrations in ground water. Maps were then developed to estimate ground water vulnerability to nitrate in areas where limited data are available.