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Budget adds to well compensation program, but many don’t qualify

Lisa Anderson filters her water with a pitcher for herself and her pets after learning her...
Lisa Anderson filters her water with a pitcher for herself and her pets after learning her groundwater has high levels of nitrate.(WSAW Emily Davies)
Published: Jul. 2, 2021 at 6:57 PM CDT
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(WSAW) - As part of the budget the legislature passed this week, $2 million in federal COVID-19 relief will be added to the well compensation program. The program helps compensate eligible people if they have contaminated well water, but a lot of people who need the help are not eligible.

The Well Compensation Grant Program through the Department of Natural Resources is meant to help replace the contaminated well or provide some solutions. It covers a lot of different types of contaminants like chemicals, arsenic, PFAS, and bacteria, but the eligibility requirements for nitrate contamination are so stringent most people do not qualify.

“In Portage County where we have one in four private wells that are contaminated by nitrate,” democratic Rep. Katrina Shankland said. “I’m not aware of a single person who has been eligible for the grant.”

The Wisconsin Groundwater Coordinating Council’s latest report to the legislature states nitrate contamination is not only Wisconsin’s most widespread groundwater contamination, it is increasing that reach and becoming more severe. It affects an estimated 42,000 private wells in the state.

Legislation, state dollars, and state and local resources are working towards researching to find ways to fix and prevent the problem, meanwhile thousands of people are unable to drink their water.

“The magnitude of the problem is that the drinking water standard is 10 milligrams per liter and we have some wells that are 30-40 milligrams per liter. So, the solutions-- the tools we have in our toolbox right now, 10-20% reduction does not get those wells that are at 30 or 40 below the drinking water standard,” UW-Stevens Point groundwater education specialist, Kevin Masarik said.

“So, the magnitude of the challenge is that we have significant amounts of nitrate that are lost and meaningful progress means, sometimes, substantial changes to the current system or to the current status quo, and if that’s not possible, then it’s a question of how to compensate people that might be aggrieved or might have wells that are contaminated,” Masarik continued.

“So I’ve always said it’s got to be a two-pronged approach. We have to find ways to reduce nitrate loss to groundwater, but in those areas where it might take too long, you know, it might take years or decades to notice measurable improvement, and in some areas, that improvement might be too small to get people safe water, we as a state have to find ways to compensate those people to get them safe water and right now we’re not doing a good job of either of those things.”

For the last four years, Rep. Shankland said she has worked to change the requirements to the grant program that could immediately help people while solutions are investigated. Currently, people are eligible if:

- they have nitrate levels four times the standard,

- have livestock that drink from that well water,

- and have a family income of $65,000 or less.

Masarik said about 0.12%, or fewer than a thousand people meet just the nitrate level requirement. Then, subtract the people who do not own livestock, and then factor in the income limits despite the costs.

“Most people just do not qualify at the same time that they’re looking at bills anywhere from $7- to $10- to sometimes even $12-15,000 for a new well,” Rep. Shankland said.

According to the WGCC, owners have spent roughly $9 million to replace nitrate-contaminated wells because of nitrate already. To replace all of the impacted private wells, it estimates it would cost roughly $440 million.

“Digging a new well doesn’t always fix the problem,” republican Rep. Scott Krug said. “There are a lot of cooperatives right now from the producer side that do provide a lot of the bottled water, potable water options that the state doesn’t have available right now.”

People not living near those farms participating in the cooperatives do not have that option. Those in cases, families must purchase their own bottled water, travel to find another source, or purchase a reverse osmosis system to filter out the nitrate. Those systems typically filter out just under three times the limit for nitrate.

“What’s important to recognize is that homeowners are left with 100% of the bill if they don’t qualify for this program,” urged Rep. Shankland.

The Assembly passed a change to the language of the program in 2020, but the Senate did not take it up. It would have removed the livestock requirement, lowered the nitrate contamination eligibility to the national limit of 10 mg/L, and it would have changed the income eligibility too. Gov. Tony Evers included the language change in his version of the budget, but republicans took it out saying they wanted to leave policy out of the budget. Republican Sen. Mary Felzkowski said there is still $450 million leftover that could be used for legislative policies going forward.

“We can do more and I think we’re looking forward to doing a lot more of that this fall,” Rep. Krug stated.

The budget also includes $25 million to the Safe Water Drinking program so municipalities can replace failing systems. As it pertains to nitrate contamination in municipal wells, Junction City spent $1,128,000 to completely replace its public water supply in 2018. Colby in 2019 spent $769,000 on a nitrate mitigation system. In Portage County, every municipality has at least one well impacted by nitrate contamination.

Rep. Shankland said the difference between municipal wells and private wells is that municipal wells have laws requiring them to meet the water quality standards, whereas private well owners in Wisconsin are not even required to monitor the nutrients in their wells.

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