CRAWFORD, VERNON AND RICHLAND COUNTIES - Gays Mills played host to a group of committed conservation and public health professionals and environmental health advocates to discuss a tri-county approach to well testing on Friday, April 12. County Conservationists from Crawford, Vernon and Richland counties, along with Public Health Department employees from Crawford and Vernon, and representatives from Crawford Stewardship Project (CSP) and Valley Stewardship Network (VSN) met at the Gays Mills Community Commerce Center to begin to move the initiative forward.
Vernon County Conservationist Ben Wojahn explained to the group that the Vernon County Board of Supervisors had approved $12,000 from this year’s Ho-Chunk payment for the purpose of funding a well water testing program in the county. In addition, he explained that the Tainter Creek Watershed Council (TCWC) had conducted well water testing of 43 wells in the watershed in Crawford and Vernon Counties in November of 2018, and planned another round of testing in 2019.
“I’d like to see the TCWC coordinate their testing with this larger initiative, if possible,” Wojahn said. “In Vernon County, we’ve got the funding and we’re ready to go.”
Crawford County Conservationist Dave Troester reported that he currently has the money in his budget to move forward with testing in 2019, but could wait until Spring of 2020 if that is the soonest that Richland County could secure the funding.
Richland County Conservationist Cathy Cooper and Richland County Board Supervisor/Land Conservation Committee member Melissa Luck also attended the meeting.
“The soonest that Richland County will be able to fund the study will be Spring of 2020,” Cooper explained. “I will have to put the funds in my 2020 budget, and then it will have to be approved by my committee and by the county board.”
The group discussed the history of well testing that had already been completed in the tri-county area, and what kind of data was already available about groundwater quality.
Cooper explained that in the past, Richland County had conducted a well testing effort in the southern sands part of the county, along the Wisconsin River.
In addition, Supervisor Luck told the group about the recent, well-attended meeting held in Richland Center to discuss water quality and well water testing. Almost 50 people heard experts and advocates discuss karst geology, the Southwest Wisconsin Groundwater and Geology (SWIGG) study being conducted in Grant, Iowa and Lafayette counties, and work being done by community advocates in Southwest Wisconsin.
“Coming out of that meeting, we determined that we wanted to launch a well-owner-funded testing program immediately for people that were concerned about the quality of their well water,” Luck explained. “We were authorized by the Center for Watershed Science and Education (CWSE) at UW-Stevens Point to send them 15 samples. The well owner paid $52 for the homeowners test, and our department saved them the cost of overnight shipping by delivering the samples to Stevens Point.”
Luck explained that with all the attention water quality is getting in the state, the lab in Stevens Point is getting a lot of requests for their services.
“Nevertheless, even though individual well owner test results are completely confidential, high level data from tests, not associated with a well owners specific address or name, can be viewed in the ‘Well Water Quality Viewer’ on CWSE’s website,” Luck said. “Currently CWSE offers the state the best centralized data base of well water quality available.”
Wojahn discussed the different testing packages available through CWSE, Homeowners, Metals and Pesticides, and what tests it would make sense for the three counties to undertake in their effort.
“Because of the DATCP funding, TCWC was able to offer both the Homeowners and Metals tests, a $150 value, for only a $25 expense to well owners,” Wojahn explained. “Farmers from the group coordinated collection of the samples and then drove them up to Stevens Point.”
Wojahn said he would really like the testing in Vernon County going forward to offer those two same tests, so that well owners will get a good picture of their well water quality and all of the data will line up. He said that given the funding available in the Tainter Creek Watershed, he would likely focus spending his Ho-Chunk funds elsewhere in the county.
Forest Jahnke of the Crawford Stewardship Project reported that CSP had recently completed a 50 well sampling all across Crawford County.
“We offered the same two tests as TCWC did, and were able to offer the same cost share as well,” Jahnke reported. “We collected the samples and drove them up to Stevens Point.”
Jahnke told the group that Kevin Masarik, UW-Extension Groundwater Education Specialist, would report on the well testing results at a meeting on Saturday, April 27, from 11 a.m. to 12:30 p.m., at the Crawford County Highway Department building, just south of Seneca on Highway 27.
Tom Lukens of Valley Stewardship Network reported to the group that the West Fork Kickapoo Watershed Association was also looking at conducting a well water testing effort in their watershed.
“It sounds to me like CWSE is much more cost effective than the State Laboratory in Madison, but that if well owners could use the Vernon County lab for a cost of $40, that might be the best way for us to go,” Lukens said. “We are looking at this effort as a way to bring the watershed together around a common effort.”
Crawford County Public Health Director Cindy Riniker, and Vernon County Public Health Sanitarian Sydney Garavalia both attended the meeting.
“We want to emphasize that the bottom line of well water testing is public health,” Riniker said. “Even if the broader sampling and study can’t go forward until Spring of 2020, we want to encourage well owners who have concerns to get their wells tested as soon as possible.”
Riniker said that all three counties offered testing services through the state lab for residents whose wells had been submerged in flood waters. Garavalia said that the lab she runs in Vernon County can offer those services as well, but has a limited capacity to analyze samples at any given point in time.
Riniker and Garavalia agreed that their departments could support the effort with a public awareness campaign, and working with well owners who discover issues with their water quality on remediation efforts.
A big topic for the group was to understand what the costs of the study would be. To conduct a study like the SWIGG study would cost, the group believed, about $170,000.
“However, my understanding is that the most expensive aspect of that study is the second tier analysis of source of contaminants testing,” Luck said. “I think just for the basic testing, the cost would be much less.”
All agreed that it would be helpful to try to obtain the budget break out for the SWIGG study in order for the group to begin to firm up their plans, make decisions about what the scope of the study would be, and begin to line up each county’s funding. Forest Jahnke and Eli Mandel agreed to try to obtain information about the SWIGG budget before the group’s next meeting.
“It’s my understanding that a lot of the results from the SWIGG study will be applicable in our three counties as well, given that we have the same or very similar karst hydrogeology,” Wojahn said. “So it may be that just the well water testing alone might be enough to get us started, and perhaps we can configure our testing so that it could be expaned to the more expensive source testing in the future.”
Luck reported that in discussions she’d had with Representative Travis Tranel, it seemed that well water testing would have support from both sides of the aisle in the state budget process.
“It may be that by Spring of 2020 more funding will be available than we know of at this time,” Luck said. “However, there is also a great deal of demand for those funds, and we need to move ahead in securing the funding we need from our own resources.”
Wojahn reported that Representative Loren Oldenburg had been in the Vernon Land Conservation Department office just that morning, and had reiterated support both for increased Soil and Water Resource Management funding and well water testing funding in the state budget.