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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.

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General assignment reporter

Emily Pyrek covers human interest stories, local events and anything involving dogs for the La Crosse Tribune. She is always interested in story ideas and can be contacted at emily.pyrek@lee.net.

(8) comments

Prairie

Seems like Sen. Schilling must know the source of the contamination. She said violations are "being ignored or swept under the rug". She must know what violations have caused this problem. Certainly she would not be using this situation for political gain or to blame DNR. She would not stoop so low so as to suggest that she knows it was DNR "ignoring" a violation that lead to this contamination. I hope she tells us soon who is responsible so we can solve this issue for real and not just at the microphone.

AARON32

The only issue I have is 3 to 4 years ago I had a well put in at a depth of 90 ft when I had it tested it indicated at that time a higher level then normal of nitrates when I raised the question on it was told it should be fine to drink if these levels are this high why did it take so long for anyone to test it sooner it takes years for those levels to go down. This is more then a township issue this is a county issue that needs to be dealt with. Think people that hold a position in the townships that serve on the county board no offense should resign .

crank

Do you suppose the pig farm or the Holmen sewer plant just north of the contaminated wells might somehow be related?

AARON32

Wondering if anyone has tested the lake water and river system levels see what they are could be where the issue is coming from not just linked to one farm or any farm I highly doubt the sewage plant would be the cause but the question is where does the sewage go back on a field used as a fertilizer. I know back a few years ago they use to use raw sewage on the fields human waste ect ect gives a very distinguished smell as well not like pig poo or cow poo.

Paw

If anyone thinks the Town of Onalaska has anything to do with this you're cracked. All of our houses are built on farm land. That's why we have nitrates in our water, we all know this already. As for the e-coli, this is a simple fix. You call a well company to come out and scrub your well. Basically bleach it for you. As for the nitrates, invest $150 in a reverse osmosis filter and you're fine. I've spent 40 years drinking free water from my well and I don't have 3 arms and 3 legs. This is nothing to freak out about and as stupid as Frank and Stan may be, they don't have anything to do with our private wells. I'll take my "contaminated" water over the Village of Holmen's water any day.

AARON32

I wouldn't trade free water for the world .... Great advice you give....

anonymous6450

Just look at WHO is on the town board. Listen to them talk. Frank Fogel and Stan Hauser couldn't create one coherent sentence between the two of them BUT, the voters have re-elected them for 30 years.

If you want your well water protected, you'd better kick the incumbents out. They have shown they cannot or do not know how to keep the ground water safe.

Frankly

So the great secret about the Town of Onalaska water is now out in the open. Town leaders can no longer ignore the problem. Nor can residents. First thing: Residents, get to the store and load up on bottled drinking water. Limit the time you are in the shower. Don't give that stuff from your wells to your pets.

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