Damakant Jayshi

The Wausau City Council on Tuesday approved funding of up to $150,000 to provide bottled water and in-home filter devices, one of several solutions proposed to ease fears over the safety of the city’s drinking water.

The council allocated the sum from the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) Fund. Staff will decide the product mix – between bottled water and individual filtration solution to meet the “temporary needs” of residents.

In June 2019 the Wisconsin Department of Health Services made groundwater standard recommendations to the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources which included a standard of 20 parts per trillion for per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS. Recent testing of all municipal drinking water supply wells for PFAS showed the chemicals at levels ranging from 23 to 48 parts per trillion (ppt). All Wausau wells were above the future recommended level.

Some council members billed this as part of the council’s “rapid” and “interim” response to allay resident concerns about the impact of PFAS contamination in Wausau’s water. The city’s levels are above the DHS recommended standard of 20 ppt, but still below the controversial standard set by the Natural Resources Board of 70 ppt. DNR and DHS officials expect the Environmental Protection Agency will release a federal standard this fall of 20 ppt.

The City Council amended an amount approved previously by its Finance Committee –  $13,200 – to provide bottled water through The Neighbors’ Place to the city’s most vulnerable residents. The amendment not only increased the amount after Dist. 8 Alderwoman Sarah Watson suggested an increase but also added water filter devices which are “a combination of solutions,” according to Dist. 7 Alderwoman and Finance Committee Chair Lisa Rasmussen.

Mayor Katie Rosenberg, who has been pushing for some action after the PFAS levels were made public a month ago, gave her nod. “I think that’s a start,” she said. “I feel some urgency here. We need to start pushing something.”

During the discussions, a number of City Council and Wausau Water Works Commission members urged taking steps to address concerns and make safe drinking water available to the residents. “My constituents have said, ‘Do something now!’,” said Dist. 6 Alder Becky McElhaney, who is also president of the Council.

Last week city officials quietly published a formal drinking water advisory asking residents to limit their consumption of Wausau’s drinking water to reduce exposure to PFAS. The advisory is now online, though no official press release or statement accompanied the posting.

The discussions started at the Finance Committee on bottled water and continued during a joint meeting of the committee and Wausau Water Works Commission. Later, the 11-member City Council unanimously approved the temporary measure.

The City Council also approved $240,375 in ARPA Funds for PFAS treatment
investigation and a pilot study to assess PFAS removal options from the water supply before the city’s new $120 million water treatment facility becomes operational. The city hired Donohue & Associates, Inc. to conduct the study.

Despite the intense discussion surrounding PFAS over the past several years the new treatment facility was not designed to remove PFAS from treated water, state officials have warned. The pilot study’s purpose is to address how chemicals can be removed from the water supply.