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Statewide groundwater quality to be task forces focus

WISCONSIN - A report of contaminated well water test samples in Southwest Wisconsin recently produced a flurry of reactions locally and in Madison.

The first round of well water sampling results in the ambitious Southwest Wisconsin Groundwater and Geology Study (SWIGG), were released on Wednesday, Jan. 2. Those results showed that 42 percent of 301 randomly selected wells tested in Iowa, Grant and Lafayette counties exceed federal health standards for bacteria that can come from animal or human waste, or for nitrates that can come from fertilizer.

In response to the contaminated well water test results, Wisconsin State Representatives Travis Tranel (R-Cuba City) and Todd Novak (R-Dodgeville) released the following joint statement on Thursday, Jan. 3:

“We hope we can agree that we all want and deserve safe, clean and healthy groundwater for everyone. To that end, we are calling on Speaker Vos to form a Speaker’s Task Force on Water Quality.”

Before noon on the same day, Wisconsin State Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, issued a statement saying that he would form a water-quality task force following reports of contaminated wells across southwestern Wisconsin.

“It comes as no surprise that Representatives Tranel and Novak are quickly responding to the needs of their assembly districts,” the Vos statement declared. “I agree that the recent reports of water contamination in private wells in southwestern Wisconsin are disturbing. Every Wisconsinite should have access to safe, clean drinking water.”

Loren Oldenburg, recently elected to the Wisconsin State Assembly to represent Crawford, Vernon and parts of Monroe counties in the 96thAssembly District, was aware of Speaker Vos’ decision to convene a task force “from reading about it in the newspaper.”

“I back the creation of the task force, and plan to reach out to Speaker Vos next week when I’m sworn in down in Madison,” Oldenburg said. “Water quality is an issue that is on a lot of people’s minds, and I believe that people deserve to know what’s in the water they’re drinking.”

Oldenburg stated that he was unaware of the results released recently from the Tainter Creek Watershed Council’s well water testing initiative, which had shown some nitrate and bacteria levels of concern in some of the northern parts of the watershed.

“I am aware that the Vernon County Land and Water Committee is considering a well water testing program, and I support that for them and for the entire 96thDistrict,” Oldenburg said. “As far as whether the NR-151 ‘Sensitive Area’ rule revisions should be extended to Southwestern Wisconsin, we’ll just have to see what comes out of the task force’s work and what recommendations they make.”

Based on the groundwater crisis in Kewaunee County, the WDNR has approved special rules for sensitive areas of the state with underlying karst geology. This comes as a modification to the state rule, NR-151, which provides guidance on the spreading of manure.

Dr. Mark Borchardt is a Marshfield-based microbi-ologist for the U.S. Depart-ment of Agriculture who has been a key researcher in a study of groundwater con-tamination in Kewaunee County. He is also the lead water quality researcher in the SWIGG study.

The Kewaunee County study, which compiled data from the random sampling of 621 private wells, indicated about 208 of those wells showed con-tamination from bacteria or high nitrate levels. A review of the pathogens in the con-taminated wells showed levels well above the state average. There was evidence of both bovine and human waste in the affected wells.

There were 301 residents who accepted the invite - 122 from Grant, 117 from Iowa, and 62 from Lafayette - to measure three different contaminants – coliform, E.coli, and nitrate.

Grant County’s numbers showed even more contamination than the three county average, as 38 percent of the wells had traces of coliform, while seven percent had E Coli.

As for nitrates, 16 percent of the wells in the region tested with levels over 10 mg/L - the EPA’s maximum contaminant level - with 12 percent of Grant County wells showing such elevated levels.

As justification for the revised rule, the WDNR’s communication explains, “The department has found that, in areas of the state where Silurian [Karst] bedrock is present, groundwater and surface water standards will not be attained by implementing the statewide agricultural performance standards and prohibitions in ch. NR 151, Wis. Adm. Code.”

Wisconsin environmental advocacy groups, Midwest Environmental Advocates (MEA) and Clean Wisconsin, weighed in on the developments after the initial study results were released.

MEA released the following statement:

“The disturbing results of the southwest Wisconsin well water study clearly demonstrate the need to take decisive action to deal with Wisconsin's groundwater contamination crisis. Clean drinking water is a public health imperative and a human right. While some improvements have been made to manure handling and spreading rules, these study results are proof that much more needs to be done to reduce nitrate and bacterial contamination. We urge Representatives Tranel and Novak, and Speaker Vos, to put science and public health ahead of politics by working with our state agencies to implement comprehensive science-based protections. We look forward to assisting the task force in any way we can.”

In addition, Clean Wisconsin issued the following statement: 

“It’s important the legislature is taking steps to address the serious drinking water quality issues Wisconsin citizens face. Solutions to this urgent problem need to come from a collaborative, science-based effort involving the legislature, DNR and other state agencies, and the many stakeholders invested in clean drinking water. We look forward to working with everyone to find real solutions to these problems.”

Novak and Tranel’s vision

Representative Novak commented on what he understood the scope of the Speaker’s Task Force on Water Quality would be.

“The scope of the task force will be statewide,” Novak said. “The task force will be bipartisan, and will involve travelling around the state and holding hearings. I envision that I will likely be a member of the task force.”

Novak said that water quality issues have always been important to him.

“Like Representative Tranel, I represent a highly agricultural district,” Novak said. “I really got my start in working around water quality issues with the Lafayette Ag Stewardship Alliance.”

The Lafayette Ag Stewardship Alliance (LASA) is a DATCP-funded, farmer-led, organization committed to sustainable stewardship of natural resources. Like the Tainter Creek Watershed Council, the group was a first-time DATCP grant recipient in 2018, and was awarded $12,000 for their work.

“The task force needs to travel around the state to develop an understanding of the particular water quality issues facing different regions,” Novak said. “No two regions in the state are identical in their geology and water issues. For instance, in Southwest Wisconsin, we have more clay than they have in Kewaunee County and the eastern part of the state. For this reason, it’s too early to tell if the NR-151 Sensitive Area rule revisions should be extended to the western part of the state.”

Novak cautioned that “this won’t be a quick process.” He said he expects the work of the committee, once convened, to take at least six to eight months.

“We need to look at agriculture’s role in water quality issues, but we also have to look at the role that septic systems play as well,” Novak said. “With nitrate in groundwater, that’s less of an issue because we can figure out where that is coming from. It’s the coliform bacteria and especially E.coli that we need to be concerned about.”

Representative Travis Tranel who represents Grant County in the state assembly stated that he is currently unsure of exactly what scope Speaker Vos has in mind for the task force.

“I was very gratified to see that Speaker Vos acted so quickly,” Tranel said. “I think what we need is to obtain sound science about our water quality and make sure that we have a firm grasp on what is causing contamination, and what we can do about it.”

Tranel is an organic farmer who sells his milk to Organic Valley.

“I think it’s going to be hard to convince farmers to change until Americans stop being addicted to cheap food,” Tranel said. “The farming community is suffering, and as long as the government keeps subsidizing farmers to keep them in business, our job of protecting water quality is going to be a lot harder.”

Are DNR’s hands tied?

As far as the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (WDNR) ability to enforce and administer the rules already on the books, and the recent and not-so-recent history of the agency’s effectiveness being hampered by political decisions, Novak had this to say.

“We really need to keep politics out of this task force,” Novak said. “I like to say that water quality is neither a Republican nor a Democratic issue – it’s an issue that is important to all state residents.”

Novak was not serving in the state legislature in 2011, when the Republican-controlled legislature came to power at the same moment as Republican Scott Walker became the new governor.

One of the provisions that was quickly enacted into law in the early months of 2011 by that legislature was Act 21, which limited the ability of state agencies to promulgate rules where the authority was not explicitly conferred by an act of the state legislature. Representatives Tranel and the recently retired Representative Lee Nerison (R-Westby) both voted ‘yes’ for Act 21 in 2011.

“I really don’t want politics to intrude on the work of the task force,” Novak said. “I do think that there will likely be some changes at the DNR with the incoming administration of Governor-Elect Tony Evers.”

Local efforts

  For the most part, well water testing has generally been seen as the responsibility of the well owner. However, more and more communities have moved to a more systematic sampling program facilitated by local government.

In Crawford County, some well water testing was recently completed by the Tainter Creek Watershed Council. Wells in Utica Township in Crawford County and Franklin Township in Vernon County were tested, and more wells will be tested in 2019. 

There were some concerning results in the northern part of the Tainter Creek Watershed, with 39 percent of wells testing between 5.1-10 mg/L for nitrate, and 23 percent testing between 10.1 and 20 mg/L. The federal standard for nitrate in drinking water states that levels above 10 mg/L is considered unsafe, especially for infants and women of childbearing age.

In March 2019, Crawford Stewardship Project will be conducting their first ever ‘Drinking Water Education and Testing Campaign.’ Current 2019 plans include reduced rates for CSP supporters wishing to test their private well in Crawford County, and education programs to explore groundwater basics, interpret drinking water test results, and discuss appropriate drinking water treatment options.

Crawford Stewardship Project will be covering 80 percent of costs associated with recommended well tests for the first 50 to register. Contact Program Coordinator Forest Jahnke, 608-632-2183,, for more information.

Crawford County Conservationist David Troester had also heard about the preliminary testing results in the SWIG Study.

“This is a very concerning initial results report,” Troester said. “It will be interesting to see who is on the task force and what the focus will be. I have already sent the well testing results from the SWIGG Study to members of the Land Conservation Committee, and will plan to discuss it at our next meeting.”

Ferryville resident and CSP board president, Edie Ehlert, responded to the breaking news.

“Everyone I talk with about Speaker Vos’ task force agrees that we are going to have to keep a close eye on what they’re doing,” Ehlert said. “We are going to have to maintain vigilance all over the state to make sure that our progressive voices are heard.”

Vernon County Conservationist Ben Wojahn made a request for well water testing funds at the Vernon Land and Water Conservation Committee meeting held on Thursday, Oct. 11. He explained that the funds would be used to conduct sampling, similar to what the Tainter Creek Watershed is doing with DATCP funds, in a couple of townships per year. 

The county conservationist proposed a 50/50 cost share between the Ho-Chunk funds and landowners. To date, the funds have been approved by the Vernon County Board Finance Committee, and now will go in front of the Vernon County Board of Supervisors for discussion and approval/denial.

“Lafayette and Grant County have embarked on a program of well water testing, and they are essentially way out in front of Vernon County,” Wojahn said. “We need the testing to protect public health and safety, and to help us determine priorities for conservation.”

Monroe County Conservationist Bob Micheel also reported that he has put countywide water testing into his department’s ten-year plan.

“I know the health department has been offering water testing for residents in Monroe and LaCrosse counties over the course of the past year,” Micheel said. “At this time, I’m not sure of their success and or outcomes.”

Richland County Conservationist Cathy Cooper was aware of the results when reached at her office in Richland Center on Monday, Jan. 7.

“I have heard about the SWIGG Study results, but have not yet had a chance to discuss them with my committee,” Cooper said. “It’s not that we don’t want to do the testing, but the stumbling block always seems to be how to fund a sampling program.”