A diverse group charged with reducing nitrate pollution in groundwater in the Yakima Valley is taking action after two years of planning.

Yakima County commissioners on Tuesday approved three agreements to expand public and health care provider awareness, additional information about existing wells, and develop baseline data on pollution levels against which to gauge future success.

The three agreements, totaling about $320,000, are with Heritage University, the Yakima Health District and engineering firm HDR.

Commission Chairman Mike Leita said the agreements represent the first meaningful steps to find meaningful solutions in the future.

Funding for the work is supported by state grants.

Yakima County sought to form the groundwater management area in 2011 after tests of rural drinking water wells found more than 20 percent had nitrate levels above the federal drinking water standard. The state Department of Ecology authorized the management area late that year, covering a 512-square-mile area from below Union Gap to Benton City in Benton County.

Benton County has withdrawn from the management area, arguing that its agricultural practices are different mainly because they don’t have many dairies. Ecology has approved the withdrawal.

Nitrates are present in groundwater from a number of sources, including animal waste, failing septic tanks and application of fertilizer. Exposure to nitrates through drinking water can have health effects on children, pregnant women and the elderly.

County Commissioner Rand Elliott, who chairs the 22-member groundwater advisory committee, said the agreements are based on recommendations from a public education and outreach subcommittee.

Elliott emphasized the advisory committee has no regulatory powers, but can recommend actions to government agencies and farmers to reduce pollution levels.

The largest of the three agreements is with the Nebraska-based HDR Inc., which has several offices in Washington state. Elliott said the $266,000 agreement calls for HDR to review current regulations on nitrates, develop a groundwater monitoring plan, and take soil samples to determine a baseline of pollution.

An agreement with the Yakima Health District for $50,000 will result in contact with between 250 and 320 homes in the management area. County Public Services Director Vern Redifer said the agreement calls for the district to collect demographic information and inspect drinking water wells to determine their method of construction, depth and nitrate levels. The district also will contact health care providers with information about nitrates.

Students from Heritage University near Toppenish will survey up to 160 homes to gauge awareness of the nitrate issue and the potential health impacts. The agreement is for $5,300.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to correct Benton County’s status in the management area.