By allowing ads to appear on this site, you support the local businesses who, in turn, support great journalism.
West Fork Watershed Neighbors to test well water
West Fork Kickapoo

VERNON COUNTY - West Fork Neighbors gathered for the third annual potluck on Sunday, July 28, at Nature Nooks Retreat in rural Viola. All landowners with land on or draining into the West Fork between Bloomingdale and Liberty were invited. This round of testing is only for well owners in this area – a broader water testing program is tentatively planned for the Tainter Creek Watershed this autumn, and in Vernon County potentially as early as Spring of 2020.

The focus this year, in line with statewide attention on water quality, was to encourage private well owners in the watershed to test their well water for the presence of nitrate and coliform bacteria, along with a few other tests such as pH and hardness, known as the Homeowners Package. 

Members of the steering committee of this watershed group have arranged to distribute sample bottles to participants, then collect and transport them to Stevens Point, where they will be analyzed. The cost is $55 per sample, which represents a savings over the cost to an individual, and there will be no cost for shipping the sample overnight, a requirement for valid test results.  

Participants are assured that results for their particular well will be shared only with the well owner. Aggregate results, though, will be shared with the West Fork group, as a baseline for water quality in the watershed, against which future results could be compared. 

Jason Vidas, landowner and birding enthusiast, presented ideas for how to encourage desirable wildlife in your yard using native plantings, protecting native species, what kinds of feed to offer birds, how to keep pests from feeders, and how to minimize bird strikes on windows. 

Landowners in the West Fork watershed who did not receive notice of the meeting, or missed the gathering and are interested in the well testing program can contact Tom Lukens 608-637-3928.

How to participate?

If you read the headlines, you know our drinking water here in Wisconsin is at risk of contamination from various sources, in both rural and urban areas. In response, the Governor has declared 2019 as the Year of Clean Drinking Water, and the bipartisan Speaker’s Task Force on Water Quality has been convened. For us here in the rural Driftless region, we are committed to a healthy watershed, starting with our own private wells. 

There are many good reasons to test your well. Most important is to be sure the water you and your family drink is safe. The most common contaminants, nitrate and coliform bacteria, are usually tasteless and odorless. You won’t know if these are present unless you test your well water. 

Drinking water with high levels of nitrate is unsafe for everyone. 

Babies and women who are or may become pregnant are especially sensitive to nitrate. High levels of nitrate can cause methemoglobinemia (blue baby syndrome) in babies less than 6 months old and increase the risk for certain types of birth defects in pregnant women.

Recent studies have also shown that high levels of nitrate may cause thyroid problems and increase the risk of certain types of cancers in everyone. 

Because you cannot smell, taste, or see nitrate in your water, it is recommended that you test for nitrate at least once a year. This is especially true in our area because the unique Driftless karstic geology (high in soluble calcium-rich rock responsible for our many coldwater springs) increases the risk of surface water to ground water contamination.

Nitrate has been found in wells in every county in Wisconsin. Nitrate naturally occurs in plants and animals. Nitrate enters groundwater from fertilizers and animal waste (poop) and through septic systems. If you have a well, you and your neighbors likely have septic systems and farming operations nearby. 

Testing for Total Coliforms looks for signs of bacteria and viruses that can make people sick. Older folks and infants are particularly susceptible to the presence of some types of coliform bacteria. Stomach problems can result. Total Coliform is a group of bacteria common in nature. Most are not serious health concerns. When coliforms are present, though, it is an indication that the well may be contaminated by soil or feces. Or, it could be that sampling protocols were not closely followed by not letting the water run long enough before taking the sample; finger contamination of the bottle or cap; or by taking the sample from a hose or outside faucet

E. coli are a type of coliform bacteria found in the gut of mammals. When E. coli organisms are present, the problem is more serious as the well many be contaminated by human or animal feces. It is important to know if E. coli are present in your well water.

Wells can become contaminated with bacteria when work is done on the well, if the well was not built properly, or if there are nearby sources of animal or human waste. Once identified, these issues can often be addressed. In most cases, a simple sterilizing operation by your local well driller involving chlorine can solve the problem. 

Common questions

Is the test information for my well kept confidential? Yes. All individual results will be kept confidential. Any information gathered by the Stevens Point Water and Environmental Analysis Lab and the West Fork Watershed Neighbors Council in cooperation with Valley Stewardship Network will be completely confidential. Results will be shared only by geographic section in a way that does not identify individual wells or their owners. Participants will be notified of their individual well test results.

 What is being tested for?  As a baseline, we are doing the Homeowners Package (nitrate/nitrite, coliform bacteria, E. coli, total hardness, alkalinity, conductivity, pH, saturation index, chloride). We are not including the Metals Package (arsenic, calcium, copper, iron, lead, magnesium, manganese, potassium, sodium, sulfate, zinc) at this time largely because our wells do not exist in the Platteville-Galena Formation where these metals are present to a greater extent.  

What if I have a water softener, filter, or some other treatment system?  For the Homeowners Package tests, it is essential that the water is taken directly from the well; prior to any softening, filtration, or treatment. In other words, “raw” water. There is likely a faucet or spigot between the well and the water softener or filter. If no water softener or filtration is employed, your kitchen or other indoor faucet (preferably a non-swiveling type) will be fine. Specific sampling instructions will be provided with sample bottles.

What should I do if my water results come back with problems? Remediation for the most likely water quality problems does exist. Information on bacterial decontamination and nitrate reduction is available through the UW Stevens Point Lab as well as through county health departments. Other more severe problems may need to be addressed at their source.