Crawford, Richland and Vernon counties embarked upon a study of well water quality following release of the Southwest Wisconsin Groundwater and Geology (SWIGG) study results. Those results showed significant problems with drinking water quality in Grant, Iowa and Lafayette counties.
The DAWS team, composed of Land Conservation Department staff, Public Health Staff, and private conservation group members from the three counties, met for over a year to prepare to launch the study. Securing the funding to conduct two rounds of testing took some time and effort. The first round was originally scheduled for April of 2020, but was postponed to late October due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
On the evening of Monday, December 14, Kevin Masarik of the UW-Stevens Point Center for Watershed Science and Education (CWSE) held a Zoom meeting where well testing participants and interested citizens were invited to attend to learn more about their results, results in all three counties, and water quality issues in the region.
“The SWIGG study really opened a lot of people’s eyes to problems that exist with drinking water around the state,” Crawford County Conservationist Dave Troester said. “My goals for the testing program are to obtain the dataset, generate awareness of the importance of regular well testing, and create an opportunity for education.”
All three county conservationists were present at the meeting, and confirmed that their counties would move forward with a second round of testing in the spring of 2021.
Kevin Masarik told the almost 20 people present on the meeting that testing of three counties was “a large area to test,” and the factors that can impact water quality are varied.
“Groundwater quality will be a function of the underlying geology that the water is stored in, how quickly it moves through the bedrock profile, and the thickness of the overlying soil layer,” Masarik explained. “The best protection that groundwater has is the soil overlaying it, which in many areas of Crawford, Richland and Vernon counties is very thin.”
Masarik explained that the areas aquifers were mostly contained in sandstone layers in the bedrock profile. He said that the area is a layered structure of rock that is a combination of cracked and fissured dolomite, interspersed with layers of sandstone.
Masarik emphasized that well construction and maintenance can play a key role in protecting well water, or in making it vulnerable to contamination. He said that the depth of the well can play a role, but that the depth of the casing of the well can be as or even more important in protecting well water from contamination with things from the surface. He also emphasized that maintenance of the well head and the area around it can also play key roles.
In the three counties, 293 samples were collected. Of those, 24 percent tested positive for the presence of coliform bacteria. The statewide average for coliform bacteria is between 15-25 percent. This means that the results in Crawford, Richland and Vernon counties is at the upper end of the statewide average.
The presence of coliform bacteria itself is in no way an indication that the water is unsafe to drink. It is, however, an indication that a pathway exists for bacteria, viruses or pathogens to enter the well. Well owners who received a positive test result for coliform bacteria are encouraged to re-test as soon as possible, but also to investigate what the pathway in and source of the bacteria might be, and make efforts to mitigate those things.
Some coliform bacteria do present an immediate health threat that would make the water unsafe to drink. Premier among those is Escherichia coli (E. coli) bacteria. Some forms of E. coli can make you sick. Some kinds of E. coli can cause diarrhea, while others cause urinary tract infections, respiratory illness and pneumonia, and other illnesses, according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC).
Three percent of wells tested in the three counties tested positive for E. coli. This is higher than the statewide average of one-to-two percent. Well owners whose wells tested positive for E. coli would have been notified by the lab in Stevens Point within 48 hours of receiving the result.
Well owners whose wells tested positive for E. coli are encouraged to reach out to the lab in Stevens Point or their county Public Health Department to discuss next steps for their well, and their family’s health and safety.
Of the 293 samples collected, eight percent of wells tested positive for the presence of nitrate above the safe drinking water standard of 10 milligrams per liter (mg/L). The statewide average is about 10 percent, so the water in the three counties is below the statewide average.
As with a positive test for coliform bacteria, well owners should consider re-testing, and also begin an investigation of what the pathway in and source of the contaminants might be. For answers to questions and suggestions, well owners are encouraged to reach out to the lab in Stevens Point or to their county Public Health Department.