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WSU Extension Program Helps Well Owners

PUYALLUP, Wash. — When Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman presented a 1997 Honor Award to the National Farm*A*Syst/Home*A*Syst water quality program this summer, he also was paying tribute to Washington’s component of that extension education effort.

The award is the most significant recognition the Department of Agriculture pays employees. Only nine other groups were recognized in the environmental protection category.

The WSU Cooperative Extension program, headquartered at Washington State University’s Puyallup Research and Extension Center, was developed to help the state’s growing rural population, especially people who have private wells, protect their groundwater, said Karen Blyler, Washington Home*A*Syst Coordinator.

The need is clear because private wells are largely unregulated. The burden for making certain the water is safe to drink falls on the well owners themselves.

The program is both voluntary and confidential. It consists of a number of different worksheets, each focusing on a potential contaminant source. The worksheets help people rank possible risks to their wells, such as relative location of the well to potential sources of pollution such as septic tanks or animal lots. A series of fact sheets suggest how risks can be reduced.

But getting people to participate is easier said than done, according to Blyler. “Most of the time, people come to the programs because they think they may have a problem. We try to stress the idea that it’s a lot cheaper to prevent pollution than to clean it up once it has happened.

“Not all contaminants alter the taste of the water. People should not assume that if it tastes fine, it’s safe to drink.”

This program stresses the role the individual plays in protecting water quality and provides lessons in stewardship.

Blyler, the program’s Pied Piper, has traveled the back roads of the state for nearly four years to recruit and work with local partners to put on Home*A*Syst programs for the public.

Use of trained volunteers has made it possible to multiply efforts. And there have been other benefits as well.

“Using local volunteers in a community provides a more neighborly approach to an often sensitive issue,” Blyler said.

With technical support from the Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of Ecology, the State Department of Agriculture, conservation districts and county health departments, Blyler has provided Home*A*Syst training materials and presented programs in 17 counties of the state.

She has helped more than 1,000 people complete assessments, trained more than 100 volunteers and has completed four volunteer-assisted projects in Chehalis, Yakima and Columbia Basins over the past two years.

Through workshops and volunteer projects, more than 8,000 people have been reached through a variety of ways.

–The Bellevue Utilities Department ran a series of free workshops to help homeowners understand how to maintain their septic systems.

–Kitsap County Public Utilities offered the program in a series of well water clinics.

–The program was integrated into WSU Cooperative Extension’s country living workshops in Mason and Clallam counties and into extension livestock advisor programs in Clark and Snohomish counties.

–In the Yakima, Columbia and Chehalis Basins, 12 AmeriCorp volunteers were trained to help people complete the assessments.

“At workshops, we invite people to come in, get free materials and listen to presentations by technical experts,” she said. “Sometimes participants get their water screened for nitrate while they are there.”

Nitrate is linked to a fairly rare, but sometimes fatal disease of infants commonly known as Blue Baby Syndrome in which the oxygen carrying capacity of the blood is impaired. Sources of nitrate include animal and human waste and fertilizer.

The free screening is a carrot to get people to participate, Blyler said. “They do the assessments during the workshops. Then they can question the technical experts on hand about their situation.”

The program has been so successful that Blyler is thinking about broadening it. “We’re going to expand the program to include a more holistic approach to watershed protection, one that covers surface as well as groundwater protection issues, through the personal risk assessment format.

“In fact,” she said, “the program has the potential to go beyond water quality and cover other topics through assessments such as indoor air quality, lead in the home, home heating and energy efficiency, and radon.”

Reporters: Home*A*Syst projects and workshops have been done in the following counties: Benton, Chelan, Clallam, Clark, Cowlitz, Franklin, Grant, Jefferson, Kitsap, Kittitas, Klickitat, Lewis, Mason, Snohomish, Stevens, Wahkiakum and Yakima. You can reach Blyler at 253/445-4556 or by e-mail at blyler@wsu.edu for more information.

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