The people of Wisconsin are concerned about what’s happening to their water. This concern was shown Monday night in Stevens Point, where more than 90 people packed the Pinery Room at the Portage County Library to hear Dr. George Kraft talk about the science and policy debate around high capacity wells – read more about this event here. Dr. Kraft’s presentation was captured in an informal video on Facebook live, visit the LWV UMRR Facebook page and look under”Videos”.
Dr. Kraft is Professor Emeritus from the University of Wisconsin Stevens Point. His work has focused on groundwater resource sustainability, particularly about profitable agriculture and water impacts, and is involved in work to modernize Wisconsin’s groundwater pumping management policy and laws. Wisconsin’s Central Sands region is where Dr. Kraft has spent much of his career, and was the focus of his remarks Monday night.
In his talk, Dr. Kraft first talked about groundwater hydrology; explaining the connection between ground- and surface waters. When groundwater levels drop, whether from lack of recharge in dry times or from pumping from wells, surface water resources are also affected. (If the water table drops eight feet, for example, spring-fed streams that intersect the water table will also go down to the same elevation as the water table. The actual amount of drop in surface water levels depends on their normal water level elevation.) Shallower streams like minor tributaries are often dried up, and deeper water bodies will drop in water level. When the amount of cold groundwater entering a stream diminishes, the water warms. Warmer streams longer support trout and other cold-water species, meaning that groundwater depletion leads to ecological change as well.
Dr. Kraft talked about the continued expansion of farm irrigation in Wisconsin’s Central Sands. The number of high-capacity irrigation wells in this area has grown significantly, and resultant drops in the water table level have been recorded.
What is the effect of this? Dr. Kraft showed pictures of lakes and streams where water levels have dropped, which is especially dramatic in dry years. This isn’t just happening in Wisconsin – Minnesota has similar geologic terrains and similar problems. Dr. Kraft talked about the approach that the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources is taking in the Straight River Groundwater Management Area- read about that here. A second project in Minnesota relating to water use and depletion was reported on in this blog earlier – the Little Rock Creek study.
So, will the irrigation wells run out of water, too? Dr. Kraft said that there’s probably plenty of water for irrigation wells for years to come. Central Wisconsin is a water-rich area, receiving more than 30 inches of rain a year. Groundwater is recharged by the rain, and the aquifers here are deep. The groundwater resource will sustain heavy pumping for the foreseeable future, but the impacts on surface water will continue. It is up to the people of Wisconsin to balance theses competing values.
While Dr. Kraft’s talk focused on water quantity, water quality is also an issue in central Wisconsin. Both are addressed by the Center for Watershed Science and Management at the University of Wisconsin Stevens Point. Dr. Paul McGinley is the Director of this Center, Dr. Kraft is an emeritus member and Kevin Masarik, a doctoral student at UW Madison, is also part of the team. Another hydrologist will soon be hired to round out the team. Support for the Center’s staff comes primarily from UW Extension, so outreach to citizens, lake associations and others is a major part of their work.
Nitrate contamination is a real problem in Wisconsin, affecting more than 25% of all private wells. Here’s a video presentation where Kevin Masarik explains what nitrate is and explores the effects of nitrate on the environment, drinking water and groundwater. In this video, Masarik discusses data found in Wisconsin’s Well Water Viewer, which can be found at this link.
Wisconsin’s groundwater has been the subject of other posts on this blog. See “Protecting Wisconsin Well Owners and Providing Safe Water” at https://www.lwvumrr.org/blog/protecting-wisconsin-well-owners-and-providing-safe-water and “When it Hits the Fan – Groundwater Quality and Public Health” at https://www.lwvumrr.org/blog/when-it-hits-the-fan-groundwater-quality-and-public-health .
Did you know that lakes and streams dry up when groundwater levels fall? It's all a system, you know, and each supports the other. The LWV Upper Mississippi River Region April Board and educational meeting will be held in Stevens Point, WI, on April 2. LWV Stevens Point Area has set up Dr. George Kraft to talk about groundwater-surface water interactions, and what that means for both resources when people mess around with the system. This event in Stevens Point will help us understand how this works, and what it means in terms of policy options and decisions.
UMRR's Board meets at locations around the watershed on the first Monday of each even-numbered month. We partner with local Leagues to co-host an educational event with each meeting.
In October, we met at the Mississippi Headwaters in northern Minnesota, and had a speaker from the Minnesota Department of Health talk about nitrate in drinking water. December's meeting was in Dubuque, and a speaker from the Great River Museum joined us.
April 2 the Board will be meeting in Stevens Point, Wisconsin. The Board meeting will be in the afternoon at the Portage County Library. Our agenda will be posted on this website, and all are welcome. But the big show will be in the evening - Dr. George Kraft, UW Professor Emeritus, will talk about the science and policy implications of heavy groundwater use. This meeting is free and open to the public. Join us!
Many thanks to LWV Stevens Point for their work in setting this up!
There are many competing interests for water; water appropriations in Minnesota are guided by statute. The highest priority is for domestic consumption, but ecosystem values are critical, too, so DNR must balance the stated water priorities with making sure that streams and other surface waters are also not depleted.
Case in point is Little Rock Creek, just north of St. Cloud in central Minnesota. This creek is a trout stream that leads to the Mississippi, and has been designated as impaired. There is extensive irrigated agriculture in the watershed, along with several small cities and considerable private well development. Animal agriculture is growing in this watershed as well. Groundwater use has lowered the water table and affected the ecology of Little Rock Creek. There’s extensive area where nitrate levels exceed the drinking water limit and nutrients are choking Little Rock Lake. DNR has worked with local interests in all sectors and has a draft plan on public notice now. LWV UMRR is working with the local League (LWV St. Cloud) to comment on the plan; a public meeting will be held on December 9.
The DNR plan is very clearly written and illustrated and so the information is very understandable. One big shortcoming, however, is the fact that this DNR plan only addresses water use, not the high and increasing nitrate levels. This is because other state agencies are involved here – the Minnesota Department of Agriculture is developing rules for nitrogen fertilizer management; the Minnesota Department of Health works with public water supplies to ensure that standards are met and the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency works with county governments to regulate septic systems and livestock operations. Fixing the problems here will be a long effort taking significant resources and requiring cooperation from many diverse sectors.
The Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade, and Consumer Protection estimates that roughly one in five private wells in rural areas of Wisconsin have levels of agricultural pollution that make the water unsafe to drink. On October 31, Wisconsin bills AB 226 & SB 168 was passed by the Wisconsin Senate and sent to Governor Walker for signature. If signed, this bill will make it easier for more households to cover the costs of their contaminated wells or failing septic systems by allowing local governments to provide low cost or no-cost loans to replace these wells and systems. It also increases the maximum grant amount under the state’s Well Compensation Grant program to $12,000. The full text of this bill can be read at this link. The Wisconsin Conservation Voters have been following and supporting this bill.
This bill allows a local government to pay to remediate water contamination problems and then charge the homeowner through special assessments on property taxes.... and no cost is imposed on the party responsible for the contamination in the first place. When asked for comment, Tressie Kamp of Midwest Environmental Advocates says (in an email dated November 6) that “this bill is only a first step toward holding various levels of government accountable for unacceptable numbers of contaminated private wells throughout our state. We specifically agree that the cap on funding does not cover the comprehensive costs to homeowners, especially those who may need to replace their well more than once. We also agree that local government loans, rather than payment from a responsible party, is an incomplete solution. But allowing local governments to make loans to bridge the gap as residents navigate the DNR well compensation program may help people who have immediate costs for getting clean water.”
For more information on the contamination of Wisconsin wells, read our blog post recounting the talk by Mark Borchart, DIrector of the Laboratory for Infectious Disease and the Environment, US Geologic Survey at this link: In his talk, Borchart discusses groundwater contamination in Wisconsin’s agricultural areas. The Wisconsin DNR has information on manure contamination identification on their website here, and is in the process of developing rules to address agricultural contamination of wells finished in the Silurian bedrock areas of Wisconsin. There are other areas of significant contamination, such as in the Brice Prairie area near La Crosse. Given this, should be scope of DNR’s rulemaking be broader?
Mark Borchardt is the DIrector of the Laboratory for Infectious Disease and the Environment, USGS. He has been studying the microbes that contaminate Wisconsin's groundwater, and the impact they have on the health of the people of Wisconsin. He told us that it is important to understand that poop is very political. The two big sources of fecal contamination in water are cows and people, and fecal organisms are found in water throughout Wisconsin. Is this a health risk or a non-issue?
The second marks below can be used to navigate to specific elements of Mark's talk in this summary:
7:30 The Laboratory conducted a study to determine how many people are getting sick from drinking non-chlorinated municipal water. This was the WAHTER study, back in 2007-8. ( Click here for more information. ). They correlated the presence of pathogens in water to the incidence of acute gastrointestinal disease. The incidence of disease far surpasses the ‘allowable’ level of disease due to water borne illness that has been set by US EPA. People who drink water from non-disinfected public water supplies or private wells are much more susceptible to water-borne disease than people whose water is disinfected.
21:00 Based on this study, Wisconsin passed a law requiring all water supplies be disinfected. However, after political change in state government, a law was passed that prohibits DNR from requiring disinfection.
25:00 The septic system at a restaurant in Door County was causing illness. It was a new system; how could this be happening? The answer was that there was a broken seal in the tank that was causing part of the problem, but the other part of the problem was that the bedrock in the area is fractured dolomite which quickly spreads contamination over great distances. Mark's talk tracks the movement of contaminants through the groundwater to neighboring residential wells.
29:40 Kewaunee County still has “brown water events” in the spring and fall that are clearly linked with intestinal disease. Genetic testing has traced the fecal organisms back to both humans and cattle, and this area has a very large number of Combined Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs). The cattle-source organisms probably spike when manure is being applied, but the human-source organisms are present year round due to the widespread use of septic systems in the area. ( Click here for more information. In this article, one participant asked whether dispensing less liquid manure would reduce well contamination. “You don’t need a scientist for that one,” Borchardt answered. “If you remove the fecal source, you remove the contamination.” )