Media Misstep Widens Hull Well Water Debate
Left, residents in the Town of Hull have already determined the City of Stevens Point is to blame for a rash of private wells going dry. (Contributed photo)
By Brandi Makuski
City of Stevens Point leaders spoke out Monday to refute claims made in one local daily newspaper regarding well water issues in the Town of Hull- information they say could misinform residents in the area.
In the Stevens Point Journal’s Dec. 14 story, “Expert: City Likely Behind Hull’s Dry Wells”, UWSP groundwater expert George Kraft was the sole expert consulted to uncover evidence in an already- lengthy battle between the City of Stevens Point and the Town of Hull. Town residents claim a new municipal well put in by the city has caused dozens of private residential wells to go dry, forcing many to replace their water supply with new wells costing $6,000 and higher.
Stevens Point Utilities Director Joel Lemke said the news story gives a false impression of the situation.
“I don’t feel there’s a great degree of accuracy to it,” Lemke said, adding all the information well #11 is data- driven but needs to be put into the proper context.
“When you want to talk about that four- foot drop, I can tell you it has happened before that well was ever in place. There’s smaller drops and larger drops throughout history related to precipitation levels. That’s one area they haven’t worked into the equation,” he said, adding his department has data from monitoring wells as recently as within the past month.
“The last two or three measurements, the water table in that area had come up,” he said.
Lemke also said a key element to the argument rests with individual testing data from residential wells because depth-to-ground water is often a misnomer as ground elevations fluctuate between the locations of each well.
“Where we take measurements, those elevations are static. The ground elevations at those locations don’t change. What I’m saying is these numbers are kind of sheered. One person might say, ‘I had water at 19 feet at my house’ and the next person would say, ‘It’s 26 at mine’, then that person is either at a slightly higher place in the region or they’re experiencing something else,” Lemke said. “There are a ton of variables. The variables are what need to be considered, but they also strengthen the point that, because of so many variables, you also can’t point your finger at any one of them, and we happen to be one of those variables.”
Mayor Andrew Halverson called the article “a really ridiculous distortion of the realty of what’s going on” and accused the paper of using sensationalism to increase its circulation.
“We have the scientific data that shows a very, very small fluctuation in the ground water. Everything is very much within the 25- year seasonal changes of the water table. So for the Journal to take such a stance, to truly allege that kind of wrongdoing inappropriately in a news article is beyond me. And I can’t believe they would print something that wrong.”
Halverson said the city received an email from Dr. Kraft “right away apologizing to us and saying how horrible he felt about the way he was misquoted and misdirected in the article. I would hope that local press outlets would have more sensitivity with something that is as serious as this.”
Halverson said the city has always welcomed independent investigation into the possible impacts of well #11.
“Have we said it’s a strange coincidence that so many wells have gone dry at the same time? Yes, we’ve admitted that- that is outside the realm of normalcy. But if you look at the kind of shallow points and how old they are, the fluctuations are similar to what we saw in 1987, ’88, and ’89- these are normal fluctuations. I was very angry when I read that article because I knew it was wrong. I also didn’t realize how wrong George Kraft’s quotes were and how completely misused they were until I saw the email he sent apologizing up and down for how horrible that article was. I guess it just goes to show you news outlets stretch when they can and I think it’s a good thing we have two objective and fairly straightforward news outlets in the City-Times and the Gazette which at least get things factually correct; they report and let the readers decide.”
Kraft, a UWSP water specialist who’s lived in the Stevens Point Area more than 30 years, would not speak on the record about whether he feels he was misquoted but did say he was surprised by the headline.
“I was quite surprised- I emailed the city and said I categorically didn’t make the statement in the headline and if you look at the quotes, they’re far more measured. But I can’t say the say they didn’t put the evidence together correctly. But where (the reporter) got the four- foot drop information from, I’m not exactly sure.”
Kraft said he looked through the data released by the city and one data point from the city’s monitoring well #3 was suspicious.
“There was one problematic water level, I think it was around 1990 or something like that, where one monitoring well showed water levels going down a whole bunch and the city is hanging its hat on that one water level. We sort of have inside information that that’s a flawed measurement- that’s the entire depth of the monitoring well,” Kraft said. “I don’t remember seeing any information that indicated a four- foot drop from one year to the next, but like I said, that monitoring well data is spurious.”
Kraft added a rash of wells drying up in Hull during the late 1980’s could have been caused by dry weather, but no recent comparable weather patterns have occurred recently.
“There’s two big knobs on ground water; the weather and pumping. By looking at the 20- plus year history of that monitoring well you get a sense of what the normal variability is, and for some reason immediately after that well #11 goes into service water levels go to the lowest on record,” Kraft said. “What are the other points we need to consider? I don’t know that, I don’t think there are many variability’s. This isn’t terribly mysterious. What else could it be?”
Kraft said how much data is actually compiled and scrutinized will determine the outcome the dry well issue.
“Do you want to look at a water level record for the entire Central Wisconsin Area? Can you prove the 72- hour testing data the city performed on well #11 was a long enough period of time to show whether you’d have an impact? Right now there’s evidence that doesn’t support that the city doesn’t have some responsibility here. But you have to look at whether that monitoring well data is really credible,” he said.
Kraft also said the hydrologist hired by the Town of Hull needs to “line up measurements from monitoring well #3 with other monitoring wells…there’s a few t’s to be crossed and i’s to be dotted yet” before the town can prove the city is at fault.
“You have to consider also, how much do you want to push this, or are you just running up expense? You could round up a whole model for the entire area to find a smoking gun or just a bullet in a victim. All these things start ramping up more costs and it’s probably going to be ridiculous.”
Town of Hull Chairman John Holdridge called Kraft one of the “major authorities in the State of Wisconsin on water issues”, saying his analysis held so much weight because he was not employed by either the Town of Hull or the City of Stevens Point.
“His analysis shows there’s strong evidence the well has an impact on wells adjacent to it,” Holdridge said. “I think to some extent, the issues are settled in this (Journal) article. I haven’t heard anything from Mayor Halverson, though I have talked to Joel Lemke about this, but not recently. I read Mayor Halverson’s comments in the newspaper, and he seems to want to blame Hull. But now the evidence is beginning to show that’s not the case.”
Holdridge said the Hull Board is scheduled to review at least part of the findings of a Cottage Grove- based hydrologist Steven Gassfield, who the board hired in November, either shortly after Christmas or shortly after the new year.