Wis. legislature making efforts to help people with contaminated well water

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(WSAW) -- New efforts in the state legislature are looking to help people facing contaminated groundwater throughout Wisconsin. A local group is hoping to push those efforts even further, ensuring state leaders know it is a life-threatening problem in the central sands area.

More and more people with private wells are learning they have to rely on bottled water to cook, brush their teeth with, and, of course, drink because their only source of water is contaminated by nitrates. It is becoming a crisis in several areas around the state, but people in Portage, Wood, Juneau, and Adams counties are working to ensure lawmakers know it is chronic for them.

"It should be everybody wanting to make sure we have access to clean drinking water in the 25-percent that's on a private well," Assembly Speaker Robin Vos said last week during a press conference.

At that time, he along with all Assembly republicans wrote a letter to Gov. Tony Evers about their priorities in this next session, places they believe they can find common ground. One of those places was clean water.

"We announced a Speaker's Task Force on Clean Water. We're in the process of working with our caucus to figure out the areas that we would specifically focus on," he said.

Currently, the task force is still forming, but it was created in response to a request made by Rep. Travis Tranel and Rep. Todd Novak after hearing of private well contamination reports in southwestern Wisconsin.

"That's kind of what set me off," said Bill Leichtnam, a member of the group Protect Wood County.

The group was formed by people in Saratoga in 2012 after the Wysocki Family of Farms proposed to create the Golden Sands Dairy there. The farm group is currently being sued after research about contaminated private wells in Juneau and Wood counties pointed blame to its other large farms.

Protect Wood County members and other leaders from surrounding counties are heading to Madison Wednesday morning.

"We're going to be saying to the legislators, 'hey, include central Wisconsin too,'" Leichtnam said.

The visit is also comes after democratic Rep. Katrina Shankland re-introduced legislation that would create a private well testing grant program for local governments to help homeowners and expand access to grants for homeowners so they can get financial help to fix their contaminated wells. Right now, even if well contamination levels are well beyond state safety standards, people do not qualify.

"I think it will help us have a serious conversation in the legislature about protecting access to clean water for everyone in the future and preventing well contamination, but we also need to give immediate relief to people in rural Wisconsin and homeowners with private contaminated wells," she said.

Expanded testing is already scheduled to happen in what's being called the "Ag Corridor" in Wood and Juneau counties, an expanded area where additional contamination could have occurred that has not already been tested. However, that testing in partnership with those counties, the farms being sued, and the DNR, and the testing is expensive. Add in the cost of $190 per person per year for bottled water, potentially drilling a new well, adding a new filtering system and you find a bill many people in those areas can't afford.