UW-Stevens Point water lab gives insight to state leaders

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STEVENS POINT, Wis. (WSAW) -- UW-Stevens Point is being recognized for its efforts to help Wisconsinites get clean water. Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes and democratic Rep. Katrina Shankland toured the university's water and environmental analysis lab Monday as the governor declares 2019 the "Year of Clean Water."

The DNR certified lab tested 4,070 private wells for homeowners in 2018, many of which were done as part of organized community testing events. According to the university statistics, there were 19 testing programs conducted in 16 counties: Sauk, Taylor, Dodge, Adams, Wood, Sheboygan, Kewaunee, Calumet, Green, Green Lake, Trempealeau, Columbia, Waupaca, Douglas, Lafayette, and Portage.

Several state leaders, including Barnes and Shankland, have called the water quality problems in Wisconsin a crisis. Around the state water has been found to be contaminated with bacteria, lead, and nitrate. Nitrate has been one of the biggest contaminates for private well owners in central Wisconsin, especially Portage, Wood, Juneau, and Adams counties.

"Forty-seven percent of people in Nelsonville, Wis. can't drink their water. Karen and Tim, their water is seven times the federal and state health standard. That's not okay," said Shankland.

Karen and Tim Hannon live on the edge of Stevens Point and as Shankland mentioned, they have high levels of nitrates beyond what filtration systems can clean out.

"The other day it was a snow storm. Well, we were low on water and I hadn't stocked up so you have to really go out and make sure that you've got water," Karon Hannon said. "And it's one of those things that you deal with, but I keep thinking we shouldn't have to."

Monday's visit was a chance for the state leaders to understand some of the science behind water contamination, what the university's testing results have found, and what is or is not being done at the state level already to help.

"There are small grant opportunities that some counties have applied for," UWSP Groundwater Specialist Kevin Masarik told Shankland and Barnes, "but those are pretty rare cases where there's any sort of aid or funding."

Masarik said a piece of the problem also lies in homeowners. He said many people do not realize they are responsible for testing and managing their own private well water, but even if they do, most do not know where to send samples to or what to test for.

UWSP has a program to break those barriers and people like Masarik will often give community presentations for homeowners to not only test their water, but understand their results. To learn more, click here.

He said one of the other obstacles is tackling farming practices and choosing crops that will help prevent contamination.

"Farmers don't want to pollute groundwater," he said. "It would be great if 100-percent of the fertilizer that is applied is taken up by the plant, but plants are only so efficient at capturing that nitrate."

There are farm groups working to find solutions to create sustainable practices and reduce pollution, including two in Portage County. Barnes said they want to get input from farmers as well to ensure they and homeowners are taken care of and have safe drinking water.

"We have to make sure that everybody, that again, that we're not compromising anyone's health and safety. This is about all parts of the state of Wisconsin working together," he said.

Barnes said the Gov. Tony Evers will be issuing an executive order this year to designate a person at the Department of Natural Resources to take charge of addressing Wisconsin's lead crisis. He said the governor also wants to budget $70 million to help with water issues, including investing in DNR studies.

"You look at other issues that we won't have to deal with because people will have access to clean and safe drinking water. It is a wise investment," Barnes said. "I don't think there are too many people that will see a problem with us making sure that we're prioritizing health and safety."

He said he also plans to push Shankland's bill forward, which would open up grant opportunities to people who are stuck with contaminated water. Currently, the grants available are limited to people with livestock, so even if a family meets the income and contamination requirements, they cannot get help to fix their water quality.

Republican Speaker Robin Vos also announced the members of his water quality task force Monday, which includes Shankland as Vice Chair.