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Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

June 1998

All groundwater in Wisconsin is considered a potential source of drinking water and must be protected by law. © DNR Photo

Walking on water

Groundwater rights evolved slowly to safeguard a valuable but hidden resource.

Dave Johnson and
Laura Chern


All groundwater in Wisconsin is considered a potential source of drinking water and must be protected by law.


© DNR Photo
Sesquicentennial logo courtesy of Wisconsin Sesquicentennial Commission.
Drink up!!

With every step, you're walking on one of Wisconsin's buried treasures. In fact, much of what you love above ground can be credited to what you don't see underground. That's groundwater – one of Wisconsin's most important natural resources. And there's about two quadrillion gallons of it to go around.

Unless you live in one of a few large cities in Wisconsin such as Green Bay or Milwaukee, the water you drink or use for washing comes out of the ground.

Groundwater also supplies fresh water to: 2,444 trout streams; 5,002 warmwater streams; 14,949 lakes; and 5,331,392 wetland acres in the state. Your favorite fishing hole, marsh and wild rapids are replenished by groundwater.

Groundwater plays an important role in agriculture too. According to a 1992 Department of Commerce census, about 331,000 acres of Wisconsin farmland are irrigated. And cows need about 100 gallons of water a day to produce 45 pounds of milk.

So what are we doing to guard what we can't even see?

In 1903, the Wisconsin State Supreme Court set out to better define well water rights.

In the court case of Huber v. Merkel, the State Supreme Court interpreted the State Constitution to mean that a landowner could use as much water as he wanted, regardless of how it affected adjoining property owners. Huber and Merkel were neighbors near Germantown and each had a well on his property. Merkel allowed his to run freely, letting the water run out on the ground. Huber charged that Merkel's well mismanagement caused his well to run dry.

The Supreme Court held that a landowner had a clear right from his land ownership to sink a well, and use that water as he chose, or allow it to flow away, regardless of the effect upon his neighbor's wells, and that such right is not affected by malicious intent.

Despite several challenges, the law remained unchanged until 1974 when the Wisconsin Supreme Court threw out Huber v. Merkel in the case of State of Wisconsin v. Michels Pipeline Construction, Inc. The latter case revolved around a contract with the Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage Commission to put in a sewer. During construction, Michels Pipeline dewatered the aquifer. As a result, the water table plummeted on surrounding properties. Several private wells dried up and others suffered as water flow to their wells slowed and water quality decreased. Also, the lower water table caused ground settling. Foundations cracked. Driveways and basement walls crumbled.

The Michels case established the concept of collective rights to groundwater and is credited as a founding tenet of Wisconsin's groundwater law. Now a property owner is entitled to reasonable use of the groundwater under private property and must consider impacts on the water table and other users. The Michels decision allows the State to regulate groundwater for the common good of all citizens.

Another pivotal moment came in 1984 when Chapter 160 of the Wisconsin Statutes became state law. The "groundwater law" has been hailed as the most comprehensive program for managing and protecting groundwater in the United States.

Four concepts make the Wisconsin law notable among the nation's groundwater protection programs:

  • All groundwater in Wisconsin is considered a potential source of drinking water and must be protected and managed to assure that it can be potable;
  • All state agencies involved in regulating groundwater uses meet as a Groundwater Coordinating Council, to provide the same level of groundwater protection regardless of which agency oversees a given regulation;
  • The Department of Natural Resources sets numerical standards to define at what point a regulatory agency must intercede to start cleaning up the pollution source and prevent groundwater contamination; and
  • There are separate numerical standards designed to protect the environment, public welfare and public health.

Through the Groundwater Coordinating Council, state agencies work together to address issues ranging from applying fertilizers and pesticides to controlling road salt and stormwater infiltration.

Local governments are taking more responsibility to protect groundwater through zoning laws and education programs.

The future looks bright even for places that the light doesn't reach – like our underground lifeline – groundwater.

Drink up!

by Robert Baumeister

In the 1800s and early 1900s surface waters in Wisconsin were more than just swimming holes and fishing hot spots. It may be hard to believe now when you turn on the tap and take a sip, but Wisconsin lakes and rivers once also served the dual purpose of disposal sites for human and industrial waste as well as the source of our drinking water.

Wastewater treatment wasn't very sophisticated at the turn of the century. Many lakes and rivers became grossly contaminated and the state's drinking water supply received little, if any treatment despite the fact that the population was increasing and the demand for water grew.

It takes a lot of cooperation and effort to quench a thirst with clean water.

© Jean B. Meyer
It takes a lot of cooperation and effort to quench a thirst with clean water. © Jean B. Meyer

The resulting tainted drinking water was too often fatal.

Deaths and illnesses from waterborne diseases such as typhoid fever, cholera, small pox, diarrhea and gastroenteritis were common. In the early 1900s the death rate from diarrhea and gastroenteritis was about 11 per 1,000 people; typhoid fever cases were about 100 per 100,000 people.

Drinking water, a necessity, had also become a health hazard.

The Wisconsin Legislature eventually responded to these health issues by establishing a State Board of Health in 1876. The Board recommended guidelines to improve sanitation practices, but was hampered by lack of funding to enforce recommendations. The Board also had little authority to control wastewater or drinking water treatment. The quality of drinking water would remain largely unregulated until 1919 when state law recognized that save water was no accident. To provide safe water supplies and sanitary wastewater, municipalities needed to follow basic sanitary engineering principles, review of construction plans for proposed treatment plants, and regularly analyze water quality at the State Lab of Hygiene.

In the 1920s and 30s, under State Board of Health's direction, sewage treatment improved and drinking water was routinely treated using chlorine use as a disinfectant and filtration systems to eliminate waterborne disease contamination. Wisconsin's last typhoid outbreak attributed to a public water system occurred in 1929.

Wisconsin's leadership in the mid 1930s set the national standard for protecting private wells and home water supplies.

Treatment plants alone could not assure safe drinking water. The people running plants needed to perform routing inspection and maintenance. Mandatory certification of plant operators was finally required in 1965.

Drinking water and wastewater programs continued to evolve under DNR direction. And in 1974, buoyed by wide public support and improvements in laboratories abilities to detect contaminants, Wisconsin adopted its first drinking water standards to minimize bacteria and organic and inorganic materials. The federal Safe Drinking Water Act were enacted in 1974 and Wisconsin showed it could meet all national standards by 1978.

As technology has evolved, water supplies have been monitored to prevent chemicals, pesticides and other contaminants. Despite our best efforts, new health challenges continue to arise. In 1993, for example, Milwaukee was struck by one of the largest known waterborne disease outbreaks when Cryptosporidiosis found its way into the public water supply. An apparent breach in treatment at one Milwaukee waterworks is believed responsible for over 400,000 cases of illness.

The finding in Milwaukee, as well as in other U.S. water systems that use lake water for drinking supplies opens a new era in monitoring raw and finished water for contaminants.

Today, Wisconsin's drinking water program remains an essential part of the environmental protection program to safeguard a clean, reliable supply of drinking water.

Dave Johnson and Laura Chern are hydrogeologists in DNR's Bureau of Drinking Water and Groundwater. Robert Baumeister is chief of the Public Water Systems Section, DNR Bureau of Drinking Water and Groundwater.