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Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

October 1999

A municipal well. Reports may include information about equipment the utility expects to upgrade and future improvements. © Robert Queen

A wet report card

New reports annually evaluate the quality of drinking water and describe how customers can tap into information about their public water supply.

Megan Matthews


A municipal well. Reports may include information about equipment the utility expects to upgrade and future improvements.

© Robert Queen

What could be more basic than water? Clean, pure and only one ingredient. You'd think that a health report on water would be the shortest story ever told.

Not so.

Though Wisconsin's residents and visitors expect the water provided by water utilities to remain safe, all of the public systems require attention. Utilities check for natural contaminants, look for leaks in water mains and pipes, constantly sample water quality, and ensure that an adequate supply is on hand for changing demand. Overall customers can feel good about the water they drink from Wisconsin's public systems.

This year, water utility customers, all four million of them, will receive the first of an annual publication that gives them more information about the water they drink, water issues facing their communities, and suggestions of how citizens can become involved in keeping drinking water clean for the future. The federal Safe Drinking Water Act requires these Annual Water Quality Reports, also called Consumer Confidence Reports, for each community public systems across the nation. Reports will be mailed to homes or posted in a public place by October 1999.

Don Swailes, DNR safe drinking water team leader, says the reports are a way for community water systems to routinely discuss drinking water with the public when there isn't a crisis or an emergency.

All communities need a steady supply of pure drinking water. When it's time to discuss water issues, informed citizens make better decisions.

© Robert Queen
All communities need a steady supply of pure drinking water. When it's time to discuss water issues, informed citizens make better decisions. © Robert Queen

These reports create an avenue for communication between the water utility and its consumers. Ideally, the reports give utility officials a chance to let customers know what is in their local water, how and why water is treated, and what is being done to maintain a safe water supply.

Reports will include:

  • sources of a system's drinking water (aquifer and well locations)
  • methods used to treat the water
  • any substances designated as contaminants that have been identified in the water
  • potential health effects of any contaminants
  • any special precautions consumers should take
  • opportunities to be involved in decisions about drinking water, such as public meetings, etc.

Reports can also include information about equipment and improvements the utility expects to upgrade as well as future needs. Water utilities may also identify possible threats to the water system's safety. For instance, where aging pipes are leaking and losing water. This information will help consumers who want to get more engaged in decisions about their drinking water. It should help system managers and users take action before a problem develops.

After the initial report this October, consumers will receive them annually in July. The reports might take the form of a newsletter, a brochure in a water bill, or a simple letter from the utility. They will be mailed to customers' homes, or if a system is particularly small, they may be posted in a public place.

Wisconsin has more than 12,000 public water systems, and the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources Bureau of Drinking Water and Groundwater assures that each of them is monitored regularly. A public water system is defined as one that regularly serves at least 25 people for at least 60 days out of the year.

Public water systems are categorized by the services they provide. Some serve year-round residents, others serve a changing population. Community public water systems, approximately 1,200 in number, serve year-round residents in municipalities, mobile home parks and apartment complexes. Other systems seasonally supply drinking water to schools, parks, waysides, restaurants and the like.

All public systems are required to monitor drinking water following federal guidelines in the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA), which celebrates its 25th anniversary this year.

The SDWA sets the standards for clean, safe drinking water.

© DNR Photo
The SDWA sets the standards for clean, safe drinking water. © DNR Photo

The SDWA was the nation's first comprehensive drinking water law, created to set health and safety standards for all public drinking water in the United States. In 1996, the act was amended to bolster provisions giving the public more information about their drinking water supply and more say in improving drinking water quality. These Consumer Confidence Reports are one of the cornerstones of those amendments.

Reports will be compiled by the local utility with statistical information provided by the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources from an online agency database that is devoted to public drinking water supplies.

For questions about information in the Consumer Confidence Report you receive, first contact your local drinking water utility. For more general questions, call a regional DNR office, ask to speak with a drinking water specialist, or use a Safe Drinking Water Hotline provided by the Environmental Protection Agency, by dialing 1-800-426-4791.

For more information:

The Environmental Protection Agency

Drinking Water and Groundwater

Drink up and tap into the well of drinking water information.

Megan Matthews writes about drinking water and groundwater issues for the Department of Natural Resources in Madison.