Lax enforcement, outdated rules and numerous substances — natural and manmade — threaten drinking water for hundreds of thousands of state residents

By Ron Seely

Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism

In this place, hundreds of thousands of people face the specter of drinking water from wells that is unsafe, tainted by one or more contaminants such as arsenic or nitrate.

In this place, for some, even brushing their teeth or cooking a meal can give pause because of the risk of lead from aging water pipes. The dangers to children, often more susceptible to pollutants than adults, and even pets and livestock, cause nagging fear.

Surely, this place — on a planet where the United Nations estimates 783 million people lack access to safe drinking water — lies in a distant nation.

But this polluted water is right here. In many parts of Wisconsin. In a state whose very name evokes the image of lakes and rivers and clean, cool, abundant water.

Lynda Cochart’s water from her private well was so poisoned by salmonella, nitrate, E. coli and manure-borne viruses that one researcher compared the results from her Kewaunee County farm to contamination in a Third World country. She suspects the problem is related to the county’s proliferation of large livestock operations, although testing did not pinpoint the source.

“Realize that we can’t drink, brush our teeth, wash dishes, wash food; we can’t use our water,” Cochart wrote in a letter last year to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, seeking intervention in the county’s drinking water problems.

“Our water is on our mind all the time. If drinking it doesn’t kill us, the stress of having it on our mind and worrying about it all the time will.”

Hundreds of thousands of Wisconsin’s 5.8 million residents are at risk of consuming drinking water tainted with substances including lead, nitrate, disease-causing bacteria and viruses, naturally occurring heavy metals and other contaminants, the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism has found.

The problem persists, and in some areas is worsening, because of flawed agricultural practices, development patterns that damage water quality, geologic deposits of harmful chemicals, porous karst and sand landscapes, lack of regulation of the private wells serving an estimated 1.7 million people, and breakdowns in state and federal systems intended to safeguard water quality.

Studies show an increasing number of residents using private wells around the state are drinking unsafe levels of nitrate — most of it from fertilizer, manure or septic systems — which can be fatal to infants and has been linked to birth defects.

Tens of thousands of people living in homes in Milwaukee, Wausau and other cities with aging water pipes and fixtures may be exposed to lead, which can cause brain damage in children. Homes built before 1950 are likely to have lead pipes, according to the DNR. Those built before 1984 also could have lead in their fixtures or lead solder on pipes, the agency said.

The Center found that in many cases, residents are on their own when it comes to safeguarding their drinking water. Private well owners are not required to test their water, and only 16 percent do so annually, although 47 percent of private wells are estimated to be contaminated by one or more pollutants at levels above health standards. One-third of respondents to a 2008-09 state health survey said they had never tested their wells.

Even consumers of some municipal water should be wary. In 2009, after researchers found viruses in public water supplies, the state began requiring disinfection. In 2011, the Legislature rescinded the rule, with its sponsor, Rep. Erik Severson, R-Star Prairie, calling it “an unnecessary and financial bureaucratic burden.”

In 2012, researchers definitively linked the presence of the viruses in 14 Wisconsin municipal water systems to acute gastrointestinal illness. More than 73,000 people use water provided by 60 municipal water systems that do not disinfect, according to DNR figures.

Last month, Doug and Sherryl Jones, of Spring Green, and Dave Marshall, a former Department of Natural Resources researcher from Barneveld who studied aquatic organisms, were among 16 Wisconsin residents who petitioned the EPA to revoke Wisconsin’s authority to issue pollution discharge permits under the Clean Water Act if the DNR does not correct deficiencies.

The discharge permits are a key mechanism by which Wisconsin limits pollutants, including manure from large farms, that reach the sources of Wisconsin’s drinking water. Both the Joneses and Marshall cited unsafe levels of nitrates in drinking water wells in the Lower Wisconsin River Valley.

Kimberlee Wright, executive director of Midwest Environmental Advocates, the Madison law firm representing the residents, said Wisconsin lacks an adequate regulatory program to protect water, including what flows from residents’ taps.

DNR spokesman Jim Dick countered that the DNR “takes its responsibility to protect Wisconsin’s waters seriously and does enforce the Clean Water Act. We are working within the confines of current state and federal laws and rules to do just that.” He declined to make any DNR officials available to discuss the Center’s findings.

Environmentalists are not the only critics of Wisconsin’s approach to safeguarding water.

In 2014, an administrative law judge accused the DNR of “massive regulatory failure” for failing to prevent widespread contamination in the private wells used by Kewaunee County residents living near large dairy farms.

Judge Jeffrey Boldt, while granting a large farm’s permit to expand its herd beyond 4,000 cows, ordered the DNR to take several steps, including requiring Kinnard Farms to conduct off-site well testing and cap the number of cows based on “limits that are necessary to protect groundwater and surface waters.”

In the absence of rigorous enforcement, the Center found, residents can begin safeguarding their water by using methods including having their private wells tested for contaminants common in their areas or using safer practices when it comes to using water from aging lead pipes. Filters and water conditioners also can remove some harmful elements from drinking water.

But environmental advocates say state and federal lawmakers and regulators must do more to ensure the safety of Wisconsin’s drinking water.

Residents “think the government is protecting their water,” Wright said. “It’s not.”

Problems are statewide

As part of its Failure at the Faucet series, the Center examined the state of Wisconsin’s drinking water. Major findings include:

  • Lead, dangerous especially to children’s brain development, is a threat in a projected 6,000 homes with lead pipes on municipal water systems, according to EPA estimates. And as many as 16,920 of the state’s 940,000 rural households on private wells also could be exposed to unhealthy lead levels, most likely from plumbing, according to a study by the Wisconsin Department of Health Services. Officials from the EPA and DNR have publicly acknowledged current federal regulations fail to protect against dangerous levels of lead in water.
  • Nitrate exceeds safe levels in the private wells of an estimated 94,000 Wisconsin households, according to state estimates. Despite these dangers, the law carves out a regulatory loophole so that private well owners with nitrate levels that could kill infants cannot qualify for financial assistance to get their wells replaced — unless the wells are used to water livestock.
  • Pesticides, some of which are linked with health issues ranging from cancer to reproductive problems, are present in one-third of the state’s private wells tested, according to the state’s 2014 Groundwater Coordinating Council report to the state Legislature. Tests for the herbicide atrazine, for example, showed 440 of 5,500 wells tested had levels above the EPA’s health enforcement standard.
  • A 2013 Department of Health Services study of 3,868 private wells statewide showed 2.4 percent of them exceeded the safe drinking water standards for arsenic of 10 parts per billion. Applied to all of the state’s private wells — a method endorsed by the study’s lead author — that percentage means residents in some 22,560 homes may be consuming unsafe levels of arsenic, which has been linked to cancer, diabetes, lower IQ and other illnesses.
  • That same study, published in the Journal of Environmental Health, found an indicator of possible disease-causing organisms such as E. coli or viruses in 18 percent of the 3,868 private wells tested statewide between 2007 and 2010.
  • Wisconsin’s private wells have some of the highest levels in the United States of the heavy metal strontium, which is suspected of causing rickets and bone deformities in infants and children, according to the EPA. The naturally occurring contaminant, which is currently unregulated, was found by a University of Wisconsin-Green Bay researcher at unsafe levels in 73 out of 114, or 64 percent, of well water samples in Brown, Calumet and Outagamie counties, where the local geology has been linked to the presence of strontium.
  • Tests of municipal wells in 42 communities for radium, a naturally occurring contaminant linked to health problems including cancer, exceeded federal safety limits in 2006. As of June, two dozen communities continued to exceed the EPA’s maximum contaminant level for radium, which is found at higher levels the deeper communities drill down for water. Waukesha continues to find spikes in its water and has made a controversial, internationally watched bid to become the first community outside the Great Lakes watershed to draw its water from Lake Michigan.
  • Unsafe levels of molybdenum, a naturally occurring metal that can cause joint, gastrointestinal, liver and kidney problems, were found in 200 of 1,000 private wells tested in southeastern Wisconsin by the environmental group Clean Wisconsin in 2014. The organization found that the severity of contamination increased the closer wells were to sites with recycled coal ash from power plants. The DNR said the data are insufficient to link the contaminants to coal ash.

According to the petition filed with the EPA, “water quality issues permeate throughout Wisconsin and are not confined to a particular area of the state. Petitioners have arrived at a conclusion that the status of the state’s water quality warrants wide-sweeping change.”

Exposure to contaminants large

The number of people exposed to contaminated tap water is hard to come by because most studies involve a single pollutant or region where drinking water is threatened. But when those pollutants and affected regions are looked at in total, the sum of people affected escalates.

For example, statewide sampling of 3,868 private wells by state public health researchers found 47 percent of the tested wells had one or more contaminants at levels exceeding health-based water quality standards.

Yellow-brown well water used to come from the tap in the home of Chuck Wagner, who lives in rural Luxemburg in Kewaunee County. He said testing linked the contamination to cattle manure. It cost him $10,000 to drill a new well free of contaminants. Photo courtesy of Chuck Wagner.

Lynda Knobeloch, the lead author of the paper and who is now retired from her position as a researcher with the Wisconsin Department of Health Services, said she was surprised at the percentage of contaminated wells detected in the study. Researchers tested for coliform bacteria, fluoride, nitrate and a panel of 13 metals. The researchers did not test for other contaminants, including pesticides, believed to be in thousands of wells.

“Since an estimated 940,000 Wisconsin households, including more than 300,000 children, drink water from a private well, the finding that nearly half of the wells are unsafe is a major public health concern,” the researchers wrote in their study, published in 2013.

Municipal water systems fare much better than private wells, partly because they are heavily regulated under the federal Safe Drinking Water Act and must test for a broad range of contaminants.

In 2014, according to the DNR’s annual report on public drinking water systems, 95.5 percent, or 10,904 systems out of 11,420, met all health-based standards for regulated contaminants.

Ken Bradbury, director of the Wisconsin Geological and Natural History Survey, said the aquifers from which most municipalities and all private well owners draw their drinking water are by and large a clean and plentiful source of water. But he added a caveat.

“We have this wonderful resource we take for granted,” Bradbury said. “And we don’t respect it enough.”

Natural threats made worse by man

Among the culprits in Wisconsin’s drinking water are natural contaminants such as arsenic and radium. And although they are naturally occurring, their presence in drinking water is often made worse by the drawdown of aquifers that comes with sprawling population growth and insufficient oversight of water use.

About 10 years ago, Bradley Burmeister’s family in Outagamie County had its private well tested for arsenic as part of a high school class project.

The results were shocking: Arsenic levels were 165 times higher than the federal health standard. Ever since, the Burmeisters have been buying bottled water by the case from the grocery store.

Hundreds of thousands of Wisconsin residents face the specter of drinking unsafe water, the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism has found. Contamination in drinking water persists, and in some areas is worsening, because of flawed agricultural practices, development patterns that damage water quality, geologic deposits of harmful chemicals, porous karst and sand landscapes, lack of regulation of the private wells serving an estimated 1.7 million people, and breakdowns in state and federal systems intended to safeguard water quality.

Tests by the DNR in the 1990s of nearly 2,000 private wells in northeastern Wisconsin showed nearly 20 percent of them exceeded the health standards for arsenic.

Some wells that once tested negative for arsenic may now be tainted because of drawdown, according to John Luczaj, a groundwater expert at UW-Green Bay.

Patrick Laughrin, who lives in the Calumet County community of Hilbert, said arsenic began showing up in his well after a large dairy operation nearby drilled high-capacity wells.

Another natural contaminant, radium, has begun to show up in the water systems of communities such as Sussex in Waukesha County, which is part of eastern Wisconsin’s “radium belt.” The radioactive substance is more prevalent the deeper communities drill into a depleted aquifer.

Not all the news is bad.

The federal Clean Water Act was passed 40 years ago, and Wisconsin’s waters — especially its lakes and rivers — saw tremendous improvements in quality as point sources of pollution coming from industries were cleaned up.

According to the DNR, since the passage of the federal law, Fox River paper mills cut pollution from 425,000 to 22,000 pounds of solids a day. Milwaukee went from an estimated 60 combined sewer overflows a year to 2.5. Phosphorus pollution from point sources such as factories and municipalities has been cut by 67 percent since 1994, according to the agency.

Portions of the series were produced in collaboration with journalism classes participating in The Confluence, a project involving the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism and the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Journalism and Mass Communication. The nonprofit Center ( collaborates with Wisconsin Public Radio, Wisconsin Public Television, other news media and the journalism school. All works created, published, posted or disseminated by the Center do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of UW-Madison or any of its affiliates.

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