State again declares need for ‘clean drinking water’
By Gene Kemmeter
Wisconsin’s seemingly lack of interest in maintaining water quality and quantity continues to affect its residents. Yet state officials have done little in recent years to make a positive impact.
Gov. Tony Evers declared last week that 2019 would be the year of “clean drinking water” to address the issues pertaining to water quality problems basically throughout Wisconsin. He promised to give those problems of potential health impacts of polluted wells in rural areas, chemical contaminants leaching into groundwater and lead pipes in older homes more attention.
Studies in recent years have identified contamination in private wells, the source of drinking water for 1.7 million residents in rural areas of the state, with 47 percent of wells tested failing to meet acceptable health standards.
A Portage County study in 2017 found nitrate as the most common health-related contaminant in the county’s groundwater, and nearly 24 percent of the wells tested had greater than 10 milligrams per liter (mg/L), the maximum drinking water standard. That is nearly 2.5 times the statewide average.
Water with nitrate concentrations greater than 10 mg/L is a health concern and should not be used by infants and women who are pregnant or trying to become pregnant to prevent potential health effects. The high nitrate levels have been associated with blue baby syndrome, colorectal cancer, thyroid disease and some birth defects affecting the central nervous system.
Many of the wells with high nitrate concentrations were located in areas of agriculture, particularly potato and corn crops that have higher rates of nitrogen application. The nitrate concentrations tended to be lower on landscapes that maintained forest cover on more than 50 percent.
Last year, well testing in Juneau and Wood counties found 42 percent of 104 randomly selected wells in the towns of Armenia and Port Edwards had high levels of nitrates and nitrogen exceeding the 10 mg/L. level. Banks won’t issue mortgages to potential buyers of the homes served by those wells if the water is unfit to drink.
Another study last year found that 42 percent of 301 wells tested in Grant, Iowa and Lafayette counties did not meet standards for bacteria or nitrates. Similar studies have indicated similar problems in La Crosse County and in cattle-intensive areas in Kewaunee and Door counties near Green Bay.
The problems affecting private wells also impact municipal well operations. The village of Whiting had to shut down its well because of high nitrates. Plover has to mix water from its wells because of high nitrates in some wells. Stevens Point has closed wells because of high nitrates.
The lead pipe issue is most important in older parts of larger cities in the state, and replacing the pipes has been estimated at $2 billion. The state provided $26 million in forgivable loans to communities in 2016 and 2017 to begin addressing the problem. Lead is harmful to everyone, and federal authorities say there is no known safe level of lead for a child’s blood.
While Stevens Point’s water system is as old or older than other cities with the lead pipe issue, less than 100 homes still have lead pipes. When the city switched the source of its water supply from the Wisconsin River to the Plover River basin in 1923, it also installed larger water service pipes, requiring the use of galvanized iron pipes to connect with homes.
Water is a vital commodity to people. Government, industry and individuals need to protect it for future generations. Costs to clean it are more than the cost to protect it.