Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Photo of Stetsonville water tower and cows © Photo courtesy of MSA Professional Services, Inc.

The village of Stetsonville built a new municipal water supply system to benefit public health.
© Photo courtesy of MSA Professional Services, Inc.

April 2012

Stetsonville's thirst for success

Building a public water supply.

Eric Ballas

Most people take for granted that you can go to your sink, turn on the tap and get clean water. Yet, for some residents of the north central Wisconsin village of Stetsonville, the water flowing from their faucet was not safe to drink as recently as the summer of 2011. That's when community leaders opened the valves on a new public water supply system and showed how a team of dedicated local, state, federal and private partners could work together to give a small town a big boost.

Trouble began in Stetsonville in the mid-1980s, with the discovery that several leaking underground storage tanks (LUSTs) in the center of the village had begun to contaminate private wells people relied upon for drinking water.

Two DNR programs began to investigate: Remediation and Redevelopment (RR) looked into the contamination, while Drinking Water and Groundwater (DG) assessed the impacts to homes and businesses whose water was now in question.

"The situation was very serious," recalls John Sager, the RR program's manager at the site. "You had petroleum contamination that was migrating underground to business and residential areas that relied on private wells for their water supply. Every time we sampled the potable water wells we would find contamination in previously clean wells. The contamination had the potential to affect a quarter of the properties in the village."

The Department of Natural Resources identified a service station and a fuel oil distributor that operated petroleum underground storage tanks as known contributors to the contamination. Sager says as petroleum leaked from the tanks it migrated into the tight underlying clay soils and granite bedrock, making active cleanup of the problem virtually impossible.

The businesses responsible for the contamination used the Petroleum Environmental Cleanup Fund Award (PECFA) to investigate the extent of contamination and excavate accessible contaminated soil.

After these initial efforts, it became apparent that additional work to clean up the contamination would be extremely difficult and would not achieve the goal of eliminating the public health risk.

"Normally at cleanup sites there are various options to clean up the contamination, but in this case the typical methods of removing the petroleum from soil and groundwater would not have worked," Sager notes. "The contamination was too deep and the soil and bedrock too tight."

About 15 private wells were contaminated. Concerns over the contamination were frustrating for the people who couldn't drink their water and the contamination made selling a home or attracting business to the area a challenge. The Department of Natural Resources tapped RR program state-funded environmental response dollars to provide bottled water to affected homes.

In addition, the well compensation program was used to replace contaminated wells. But these efforts were temporary solutions to the problem. Groundwater samples from replacement wells were then analyzed and showed traces of contamination.

Stetsonville Village President Greg Brunner watched the drama unfold. "It was an uphill battle with no end," he recalls. "We knew we had to do something positive."

Two people who were thinking about solutions were Sager from the RR program and Chuck Fitzgerald from the DG program. Together, they concluded that a new, municipal water supply system was the only permanent solution.

An important first step was to ask the former Wisconsin Department of Commerce for assistance through the Petroleum Environmental Cleanup Fund Award (now run by the Department of Safety and Public Services) to provide initial funding to study the feasibility of a public water system. The Department of Commerce approved the funding and the village hired MSA Professional Services Inc. to prepare a feasibility assessment.

Following initial meetings between the village board, Department of Natural Resources, Department of Commerce and MSA, the village organized a public meeting to explain the extent of the problem.

On Sept. 3, 2008, a public meeting was held at the village community center where DNR staff explained the nature and extent of the problem and the proposed solution – to build a municipal water supply to ensure a safe water source for the village.

"The typical experience in these situations is half the town has clean water and doesn't want to pay for municipal water and the half with contaminated water wants municipal water," Sager notes. "It becomes a divisive issue that can take years to resolve. Thankfully, that didn't happen here. It was amazing to watch the village come together at that public meeting and agree to work towards a common goal."

Stetsonville residents got behind the effort and voters approved creating the new municipal water supply system during elections in 2008 and 2009.

As momentum began to build, the village searched for other funding sources and retained MSA to design and manage the project. By working with various state and federal sources, the village was able to pull together more than $7 million to fund the project (see box).

Stetsonville water supply system funding sources

American Recovery and Reinvestment Act EPA LUST Trust Funds (via DNR) – $2,000,000

U.S. Department of Agriculture Rural Development – $2,109,000 (loan), $665,000 (grant)

EPA State and Tribal Assistance Grant – $900,000

Community Development Block Grant – $594,000

Commerce Petroleum Environmental Cleanup Fund Award – $850,000

Total – $7,118,000

With partners for the Stetsonville project in place, the community broke ground on a new municipal water supply system in April 2010. Just 18 months later, work on the system was completed.

Today, the system receives clean water from two high-capacity wells and the water is then further processed in a new water treatment plant. Water is then pumped to the most visible component of the system: the gleaming new water tower standing tall as a reminder of the village's accomplishment. The water flows from the tower through a new system of water mains to approximately 253 homes, which no longer rely on water supply wells. Brunner acknowledged that DNR support was vital to getting safe water flowing again.

"The Department of Natural Resources was the backbone for this project," Brunner contends. "They steered us in the right direction for the agencies we needed to provide funding and engineering services."

To those who worked hard for years to bring clean water to Stetsonville, it's worth it to know that families can now turn on their taps and drink a glass of fresh, clean water.

The plan has already paid off economically as well.

"Real estate sales have picked up again," Brunner says. "We have developers looking at the village area for expansion."

Eric Ballas is a marketing specialist for the DNR's Remediation and Redevelopment Program, helping to promote the cleanup and reuse of brownfield properties. He's based in Madison.