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Waters of Wisconsin Program Blog


Tools for the 900,000

Tue, 12/15/2015 - 10:53am -- Erin Olshefski

Recently, the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism (WCIJ) began publishing a series titled Failure at the Faucet, examining state water quality and supply issues. One piece in the series, “Safe, Clean Drinking Water Eludes Many Wisconsinites,” successfully embodies the purpose and reason for such an elaborate investigation. The WCIJ found that hundreds of thousands of the 5.8 million people residing in Wisconsin are at risk for consuming drinking water tainted with contaminants including lead, nitrates, disease-causing bacteria and viruses, naturally occurring heavy metals, and other contaminants.

900,000 of those 5.8 million Wisconsin residents rely on water from private wells—water stores that are subject to lax state regulations that amplify the threat of contaminants making their way into local aquifers. This has put the 900,000 at risk.

With its abundance of natural resources, Wisconsin is not usually associated with contaminated drinking water. Typically “don’t drink the water” is a warning heard in developing countries that lack infrastructure and the general resources to provide safe drinking water. That is why it is surprising that Wisconsin, traditionally thought of as a leader in natural resource protection, and home to a number of research institutions devoted to freshwater, public health, and ecosystem health, has residents at risk of consuming contaminated drinking water.

According to the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources: "The number of wells and number of well tests is a dashboard indicator of groundwater health risk awareness. The pie chart shows the estimated proportion of wells tested."

The Safe Drinking Water Act, the primary federal law ensuring the quality of Americans’ drinking water, does not regulate private wells. This means that unless state or local governments have regulations of their own in place, homeowners are responsible for ensuring their water is safe to drink. Wisconsin state government has taken on some of the burden. Wisconsin Administrative Code NR 812, for example, sets standards for well construction and pump installation. While these rules put protections in place for the creation of new wells, Wisconsin currently has no policies requiring homeowners to regularly test their wells for contamination.

According to the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources: "Private well owners are encouraged to test their well at least annually, but the estimated proportion doing so is small compared to the total estimate of private wells. The graph shows the trend in testing over time."

But what about mortgage lenders? It is true that mortgage lenders may require the testing and inspection of a private well prior to property transfer. Although state law does not require well testing as part of property transfer, NR 812 does require that if an inspection is done at the time of sale that it must be done by an individual who is a licensed well driller or licensed pump installer. Even in this case, if issues with the well construction or water quality are found, it is still up to the buyer and/or seller to remedy.

Despite these holes found in protection from state agencies there are tools that can be utilized by counties, municipalities, and homeowners to both understand the risk of contamination and understand the responsibilities that come with maintaining a private drinking water well. Education and outreach are key to overcoming the hurdles posed by weak state and federal regulation—especially in a state where over a quarter of residents are still reliant on a private well for their source of potable water.

The University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point Center for Watershed Science and Education (CWSE) works in the spirit of the Wisconsin Idea to support watershed stewardship, assist citizens with drinking water quality problems, promote management strategies, provide water quality assessment and support, and prepare students for careers as water resource professionals. The CWSE’s website provides tools that are meant for public education and outreach. I’ve listed some of these tools below.

Right now, it is up to the property owner to ensure clean drinking water for its fellow citizens. Until the state opts to take on more of the responsibility, these tools are invaluable to creating a safe, healthy Wisconsin:

Wisconsin Well Water 101: This tool helps homeowners to make decisions about their private water system. This tool is comprehensive and multi-faceted including:

  • Groundwater Basics
  • Water Quality by Geographic Area
  • Education on Well Construction
  • How to Interpret Water Test Results
  • How to Improve Water Quality
  • Who to Contact for Additional Assistance

Well Water Quality Viewer: This tool does not give testing results for individual private wells but rather displays trends for 14 different water quality parameters by county, township, and section.

Private Wells FAQ: This web page provides answers and links to resources for frequently asked questions. It also provides definitions and information on common water quality problems.

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Erin Olshefski is a former Initiatives intern at the Wisconsin Academy. She is currently completing her Master’s degree at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee School of Freshwater Sciences with a focus in the management, economics, and policy of freshwater resources.

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