Protecting Public Health and the Environment.

Nitrate in Ground Water

Although the quality of ground water in Idaho is generally good, ground water quality monitoring shows that in specific areas of the state, Idaho's ground water has been significantly degraded. This localized degradation negatively impacts water quality and potentially threatens domestic water supplies, aquaculture, agriculture, mining, industrial, and other ground water beneficial uses.

Nitrate is one of the contaminants responsible for this degradation and is one of the most widespread ground water contaminants in Idaho. Nitrate is a form of nitrogen, an element whose compounds are vital components of foods and fertilizers. It is an essential nutrient for plant growth. Nitrate comes from a variety of sources, such as plants and other organic matter that return nitrate to the soil as they decompose. Septic sewer systems, waste from animal feedlots, and nitrogen-based fertilizers also discharge nitrates to the environment.

Nitrate that is not used by plants can build up in and move through the soil. Precipitation, irrigation, and sandy soils allow nitrate to move around and find its way into surface water and ground water.

While nitrate is just one of the potential ground water contaminants in Idaho, more is known about nitrate in ground water in Idaho than other contaminants. In addition, the presence of nitrate is a good indicator of other potential water quality problems.

Why is Nitrate in Ground Water a Concern?

Ground water supplies 95% of the water used in Idaho households and provides drinking water to more than 200 Idaho cities and towns. High levels of nitrate in drinking water are associated with adverse health effects.

EPA has established a federal drinking water standard of 10 milligrams of nitrate per liter of water (10 mg/L). The Idaho ground water quality standard is also 10 mg/L. Of wells sampled in Idaho for nitrate, 3% have nitrate concentrations above 10 mg/L and 30% have nitrate concentrations between 2 and 10 mg/L.

Health Effects of Nitrate

People can be exposed to nitrate through food and water. In most populations, short-term exposure to even fairly large amounts of nitrate produces no immediate health effects. However, sensitive populations (babies, people in poor health, and the elderly) can be susceptible to problems from short-term nitrate exposure. Infants younger than six months of age are especially sensitive to nitrate poisoning, which may result in serious illness or death. The illness occurs when nitrate is converted to nitrite in the baby's body. Nitrite reduces the amount of oxygen in the baby's blood, causing shortness of breath and blueness of the skin (often called blue baby syndrome). The technical term for this condition is methemoglobinemia. This illness can cause the baby's health to deteriorate rapidly over a period of days.

Livestock, such as cattle and sheep, also can be poisoned by high levels of nitrate in their water. It is recommended that water with a concentration of over 100 mg/L not be given to livestock.

Testing For Nitrate

Public water systems are required to sample for various contaminants, including nitrate, on a regular basis. If you are connected to a public water system, refer to that system's Consumer Confidence Report for the nitrate level in your drinking water. The contact information for your local water system should appear on your water bill, or you can contact your DEQ regional office for that information.

Nitrate sampling is not required for domestic or stock wells. However, DEQ recommends that owners test their wells for nitrate on a regular basis. To find out if your domestic or stock well water contains nitrate, have it tested by a laboratory certified for nitrate testing. Read more about recommended tests for private wells. It is particularly important to test for nitrate if you live in a nitrate priority area.

What if Nitrate is Found in My Water?

If the nitrate concentration exceeds 10 mg/L, do not give the water to an infant younger than six months of age. Pregnant women, nursing mothers, and other sensitive populations should also avoid drinking the water. Instead, use water from a source that has been tested and shown to be low in nitrate.

Commercially bottled water is required to meet the nitrate standard. Do not boil high-nitrate water to treat it. Boiling actually concentrates the nitrate as the water evaporates away. Water softeners and filters also do not reduce nitrate contamination. Home water treatment units are not recommended for treating high-nitrate water that will be given to infants or other sensitive populations as there is no way to know when the treatment system may fail.

Nitrate Priority Area Ranking

As part of DEQ's goal of restoring degraded ground water, DEQ has developed a list of degraded ground water areas. This list focuses on nitrate and ranks the top 34 nitrate-degraded areas (referred to as nitrate priority areas) in the state based on the severity of the degradation; the rank of "1" indicates the most severely impacted area in the state.

The data used to rank the priority of the areas are updated on a continual basis. DEQ uses a specific nitrate priority ranking process as the basis for the ranking. Areas are ranked based on criteria such as population, existing water quality, water quality trends, and other factors. The process also takes into account impacts on beneficial uses other than water supply.

An interactive mapping application of the nitrate priority areas with nitrate concentrations of wells monitored by DEQ, the Idaho Department of Water Resources in conjunction with the United States Geological Survey, and Idaho State Department of Agriculture has been created. Public water system well locations are not displayed for security reasons. Capture zones delineated for source water assessments are an optional layer that may be turned on when zooming into an area on the map.

If you own a well and live in one of the nitrate priority areas, it is particularly important to test your well water on a regular basis. If your well is not in a nitrate priority area, this does not rule out the potential for nitrate contamination, so testing your well water is still recommended.

Staff Contacts

Ground Water Bureau Chief
Ed Hagan
DEQ State Office
Water Quality Division
1410 N. Hilton
Boise, ID 83706
(208) 373-0356

DEQ Resources

Interactive Nitrate Data

DEQ Nitrate Priority Areas (2014)
Access an interactive, map-based source of information on ground water quality areas where nitrate concentrations potentially degrade drinking water quality.

More Information

Related Pages

Ground Water in Idaho

Degraded Ground Water

Private Wells

Idaho Nitrate Symposium: Working Together to Protect Idaho’s Drinking Water (Source Water)