Private well owners in the western half of the towns of Onalaska and Holland are being urged to test their water after the La Crosse County Health Department discovered worrisome levels of nitrates and bacteria in much of the water supply.
More than 2,000 residents received notices by mail last week alerting them to the problem, discussed during a press conference Thursday afternoon at the La Crosse County Administrative Center.
“This is the first time we have been able to identify with enough data that we do have a problem in our county,” said Jen Rombalski, director of the La Crosse County Health Department.
Water contamination data was requested in response to a 2016 audit showing multiple failings by the Wisconsin DNR to enforce the clean water laws. Results showed levels higher than 20 micrograms per milliliter of nitrates in some of the private well water supply, with several locations registering between between 10 and 20. Water typically registers 1 mcg per ml, and anything more than 10 mcg per ml can cause health problems, especially for infants and pregnant women. Risks include birth defects and “blue baby syndrome.”
Private well water also tested positive for coliform, which in itself may not cause illness but can indicate the presence of E. coli, which may cause gastrointestinal problems including diarrhea and vomiting.
Health and Human Services Committee Chair Monica Kruse stated that an exact cause of the contamination has not been determined, but contributing factors include sandy soil, run-off and general land use.
“It can take years and decades for this to occur and show up, and it can take years and decades for the levels to go back down,” Rombalski stressed. “In the short term, first and foremost you need to test your water, and, in the long term, we need to try to better protect our land so we’re protecting our ground water.”
The health department recommends having private well water tested annually and is offering kits and testing at a reduced cost to encourage residents in affected areas to act quickly. Kits are available at the La Crosse County Health Department, with results available by mail in two to four business days.
Those with elevated nitrate levels are advised to use bottled water for drinking and cooking and to consider having reverse osmosis systems installed or have a deeper or new well drilled. Bacteria can be killed by boiling water before consumption, but is not recommended when nitrates are also present, as boiling can concentrate nitrates.
While there are currently no concerns about nitrate levels and bacteria in the county’s public water supply, Sen. Jennifer Shilling released a statement citing unease about water safety in general.
“Years of Republican budget cuts and staff reductions at the Department of Natural Resources are threatening our state’s drinking water and putting communities at risk,” Shilling said. “These problems aren’t new, but they are certainly getting worse as major violations are being ignored and swept under the rug. If we don’t act to improve enforcement standards and protect access to clean drinking water, families are going to continue to face these serious health threats and economic challenges.”
Informational meetings for residents will be held at 6 p.m. Wednesday at Holland Town Hall, W7937 Hwy. MH, Holmen; and at 6 p.m. Thursday at Onalaska Town Hall, W7052 Second St.
For more information on well water testing, visit www.co.la-crosse.wi.us/health/docs/InYourHome/Tests%20for%20Dinking.pdf.