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Central Sands Groundwater County Collaborative combining data to further nitrate contamination research

Updated: Jun. 10, 2021 at 6:50 PM CDT
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NELSONVILLE, Wis. (WSAW) - Lisa Anderson has lived in Nelsonville for 20 years. Two years ago she discovered her drinking water was at the maximum EPA limit for the amount of nitrate contamination: 10 parts per million. At that point, she stopped drinking her water out of the tap.

“This was something that we didn’t know, you know, we came from municipal water in Neena 20 years ago,” she said. “We had no idea that we needed to be testing our water and that it could be unsafe.”

The former village clerk only knew to test her private well water after another family in the village got it tested and learned they had levels beyond the EPA limit, watching it increase over the years. They came to village meetings saying something should be done. Anderson has since become an advocate for that change, learning everything she can about nitrate-contaminated water.

Nelsonville does not have a municipal well, so it is up to individual households to test their water. When Portage County got a grant to test more wells for nitrate contamination, Anderson said 58 of the 77 wells in Nelsonville were tested. Of those tested, 36 were found to be at levels above the EPA limit. In the whole county, they found roughly 20-24% of private wells are contaminated with nitrate. Ever single municipality with a municipal well system in the county also has at least one contaminated well

Anderson’s nitrate levels are below the EPA limit now, but she no longer drinks straight from the tap. She now filters her tap water through a pitcher for herself and her pets. Nitrate contaminated water is linked to numerous health issues like cancers, thyroid disease, miscarriages, and blue baby syndrome.

“I got a thyroid disease a couple of years after we moved here,” she stated. “Our dog has thyroid disease.”

She said a lot of other residents also have health issues like high rates of cancer, a young family that has dealt with miscarriages as well as a premature birth where that baby was also found to have thyroid disease.

“It’s hard without an epidemiological study to prove that our health problems come from the water, but we do know that high nitrates are linked...”

While septics have been found to be a small source of the problem, local research is showing a bigger source.

“Agriculture is probably the largest source and it’s a combination of crops that are grown, our sandy soils that are not ideal for trying to tackle this issue,” Jen McNelly, Portage County’s water resource specialist said. “How can we help our farmers be successful in what they’re trying to do while also acknowledging a water quality issue that we need to address?”

Portage County is not the only county trying to answer this question. Wood, Juneau, and Adams counties actually began looking at the issue after discovering high nitrate levels in 2017. They along with Marquette and Waushara counties, which were facing the same problems, started talking with each other around 2018-2019. The six counties are in the Central Sands aquifer and they created the Central Sands Groundwater County Collaborative around the same time the state created the water quality taskforce.

McNelly said the collaborative initially discussed what kind of monitoring strategy they could have, but when they reached out to outside strategists, they realized combining the research they already had done. They applied and recently learned they were awarded a grant through the Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection to make that happen.

“This is kind of a project aimed at collecting data, assessing what we already know so that we can make really informed decisions going forward,” McNelly explained. “We really don’t want to waste time or resources, especially our taxpayer dollars and so we feel like this project is really setting us up to make the best-informed decisions going forward.”

They plan to hire a researcher to begin in July compiling the existing data, working with agencies, counties, and local groups to assemble spatial and water quality data in one central place. DATCP asked to have the researcher also compile data about neonicotinoids, which are an emerging contaminate widely known for the decline in the honey bee population. They are insecticides used on crops that have been found in surface and groundwater. Not much is know about the human health impact. The state is looking to create water quality standards related to their use.

Anderson and other people facing the contamination problem said they are supportive of farming but are looking for farms to be accountable for their practices that have caused these problems. Largely, residents have been having to mitigate the problem of contaminated water by purchasing bottled water, filtered systems, or driving elsewhere to regularly fill up water tanks. They want environmental factors, like sandy soil, to be part of how a farm decides to implement certain practices. Cover crops, strategic manure spreading, and reduction of nitrogen use are some things McNelly said are being looked at. The Department of Natural Resources is also working on a targeted performance standard to address those issues.

In 2018, 200 households in Wood, Juneau, and Adams counties filed a lawsuit against one of the large concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFO) in the area to hold them accountable for the contaminated water.

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