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.
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.”
About 10 years ago, Bradley Burmeister’s family in Outagamie County had its private well tested for arsenic. The results were shocking: 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’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 residents, and breakdowns in state and federal systems intended to safeguard water quality.
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 above health standards.
Even consumers of some municipal water should be wary. In 2009, after researchers found viruses in public water supplies, the state began requiring disinfection, but the Legislature rescinded the rule in 2011. In 2012, drinking untreated municipal water was linked to acute gastrointestinal illness in 14 Wisconsin communities. Today, more than 73,000 people use water provided by 60 municipal water systems that do not disinfect, according to state Department of Natural Resources figures.
Last month, Doug and Sherryl Jones, of Spring Green, and Dave Marshall, a former DNR researcher from Barneveld, 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 permits are a key way the state limits the amount of pollutants, including manure from large farms, tainting the drinking water.
Kimberlee Wright, executive director of Midwest Environmental Advocates, the Madison law firm representing the residents, said Wisconsin lacks an adequate regulatory program to protect the quality of 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.
The Center found residents can begin safeguarding their water 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
Over the past year, 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 on municipal water systems and in as many as 16,920 households on private wells that likely have plumbing containing lead, according to state and federal estimates. Officials from the EPA and DNR have publicly acknowledged current federal regulations fail to protect against dangerous levels of lead in water.
- Nitrate, especially dangerous to infants, exceeds safe levels in the private wells of an estimated 94,000 Wisconsin households, according to state estimates.
- 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.
- A 2013 Department of Health Services study of private wells statewide showed 2.4 percent exceeded the safe drinking water standards for arsenic, meaning some 22,560 homes may be consuming unsafe levels 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 wells.
- 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.
- 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.
Wisconsin heading backward?
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 from industries were cleaned up. Jill Jonas, head of the DNR’s Drinking and Groundwater program, called Wisconsin’s efforts to ensure clean drinking water a “tremendous success story.”
But activists contend the state has gone backwards in recent years. In 2011, the EPA identified 75 failings in the DNR’s enforcement of the state’s wastewater pollution permit program. Last month, after the residents’ petition was filed, the state agency announced it is working on addressing most of the issues.
“Our state has historically been, and continues to be, a leader in many water-related areas,” DNR Secretary Cathy Stepp said in a news release.
But the residents’ petition filed with the EPA charged that the agency’s authority and staff have been whittled away. It cited the loss of 600 positions in the past 20 years and the move by Gov. Scott Walker’s administration to roll water regulation into a new department, Business Support and External Services Division.
“The governor and state Legislature have starved the DNR’s power and robbed the agency’s experienced staff of professional autonomy to make informed decisions,” Wright said in a statement, adding, “Without effective government, we are compounding what our children and grandchildren will face in a world increasingly short of drinking water.”