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Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

A rotary well rig used to drill residential water wells. Expanding suburban areas increasingly draw on Wisconsin's groundwater resource. © DNR Photo
© DNR Photo

June 2004

A growing thirst for groundwater

Where water demand outpaces supply, times warrant a fresh look at a resource considered unfathomable and unending.

Lisa Gaumnitz, Tim Asplund and Megan R. Matthews


A rotary well rig drills a residential water well. Expanding suburban areas increasingly draw on Wisconsin's groundwater resource.
A legacy of protecting groundwater quality now addresses quantity
Concerns rise as the water table drops
Protecting Great Lakes waters from overuse
Costs drive community searches for options

It's hard to conceive that Wisconsin groundwater, long viewed as a bottomless well, could run dry in some places.

"With 1.2 million billion gallons of groundwater, as well as the Mississippi River and two Great Lakes, there isn't any other state that has anything like it," says Jill Jonas, who directs the state's drinking water and groundwater program. "It's not that we don't have enough water, but in a growing number of places, we're pumping groundwater faster than it can recharge. There are areas in the state where streams aren't running and where springs aren't flowing because the groundwater that feeds them is being drawn dry by people."

Humans have interrupted the water cycle. It's creating a vicious circle in some parts of the state and a cautionary tale in other places that still have a favorable water balance.

In the last century, pumping has reduced groundwater levels by 450 feet around Milwaukee and Waukesha, by more than 300 feet in the Green Bay area, and by about 60 feet in Dane County. These long-term drops in groundwater levels affect the quantity and quality of water available to communities, private well users, and in some cases to the lakes, rivers, wetlands and springs that depend on them for year-round flow.

The search for new water supplies and technological fixes is compounding these problems, revealing weaknesses in state laws that govern the siting and operation of wells. It's also pitting communities and residents against one another and the natural resources they adore.

For example, in southeastern Wisconsin, Waukesha County is pumping 25 percent more groundwater than in 1979, contributing to a dropping water table and drawing water from rock layers that liberate naturally-occurring radium into drinking water, which must be treated.

New Berlin has limited future planned industrial, commercial and residential growth to stay within the capacity of its existing shallow water wells.

And the Village of Mukwonago, despite an exhaustive search for a new source of drinking water, is siphoning water away from a rare Wisconsin wetland that harbors endangered plant species dependent on a constant supply of high quality groundwater.

But there are signs that Wisconsinites are starting to see the connection between groundwater, surface water and the need to better manage water uses:

  • Legislation passed in late March for the first time addresses groundwater quantity issues and seeks to control well location and pumping rates to prevent harm to trout streams and other nearby sensitive surface waters.
  • A regional effort to assess, coordinate and manage drinking water supplies is underway in southeastern Wisconsin, where the state's deepest drawdowns have occurred.
  • This year the Great Lakes governors and their Canadian counterparts are expected to update the agreement that protects Great Lakes waters and seeks to limit exports of waters to communities outside the basin.

"We're beginning to realize what we've been taking for granted for a long time," says Ted Wysocki, New Berlin's mayor. There has to be stewardship of groundwater and it's more than what we thought 30 years ago, (which was) "let's protect it and keep it clean."

"The fact is that there are places where obtaining a ready supply of water is already a challenge. Matters will only worsen unless we make changes," says DNR Water Administrator Todd Ambs. "We need to make a conscious choice to deal with these issues. The alternative is to let a crisis or circumstances beyond our control dictate how we manage water."

A legacy of protecting groundwater quality now addresses quantity

Wisconsin led the nation in crafting laws to protect groundwater quality and provide safe drinking water. State regulations from the 1930s governed well construction, pump installation and set the nation's standard for providing safe, sanitary drinking water. Laws to limit groundwater contamination and require corrective cleanups were crafted 20 years ago as Wisconsin faced concerns from potato pesticides, spills and potential mining wastes, but a regulatory framework to protect groundwater quantity did not receive much public attention until recently.

Public interest and policymakers' attention bubbled to the surface in 1999-2000 when a proposed water bottling plant in Adams County showed that state laws didn't address whether nearby springs, wetlands or trout streams might be harmed if the wells were constructed to provide the water. The case served to make people much more aware of the connections between groundwater withdrawal, surface water and human activities.

The earliest guidance on quantity came through the courts in 1903. The State Supreme Court, in Huber v. Merkel, interpreted the State Constitution to mean a landowner could use as much groundwater as wanted, regardless of how it affected adjoining property owners. In 1974, the State Supreme Court overturned Huber v. Merkel and ruled in State of Wisconsin v. Michels Pipeline Construction that the state regulates groundwater for the common good of all citizens. A property owner is only entitled to "reasonable use" of groundwater, and is potentially liable for impacts on other users. However, damages could only be prevented or recovered after-the-fact through civil lawsuits, and what was considered "reasonable use" might vary.

Laws passed in the post-war building boom of 1945 tested whether communities could protect drinking water supplies by requiring approvals before sinking high capacity wells near any municipal well. These private "high cap" wells – capable of withdrawing more than 70 gallons a minute or more than 100,000 gallons a day – were seen as potential threats to the public drinking water supplies serving growing cities. There was clear intent to ensure a safe drinking water supply and to separate subdivisions from enterprises like vegetable canneries, papermakers and breweries that might vie for the same water. Today, more than 9,500 high capacity wells are in service statewide providing water for agricultural irrigation, municipal drinking water, industries, schools, institutions and mobile home parks.

Some other states – Florida, Minnesota, Oregon and Washington – have modernized their statutes to recognize that surface water and groundwater are hydraulically connected and ought to be legally linked for their mutual protection.

The Groundwater Protection Act passed last March expands DNR authority over groundwater wells by requiring advance notice before any wells are constructed. The law directs DNR to review environmental consequences of proposed high capacity wells in certain situations:

  • within 1,200 feet of any surface water identified as an Outstanding Resource Water (like a pristine lake), an Exceptional Resource Water (like a wild river) or trout stream;
  • a well that has a water loss of more than 95 percent of the water withdrawn (like a beverage bottler);
  • any well that may significantly affect a spring that has a minimum flow of one cubic foot per second for at least 80 percent of the time.

This gives the Department of Natural Resources the authority to deny well applications, yet flexibility to allow wells in whole or part if the environment is not threatened.

Importantly, the law also creates a committee that will recommend what ought to be done in larger drawdown areas by the end of 2006, and will review how the law is working by the end of 2007. If the group doesn't provide substantive recommendations, the law give DNR authority to write rules making needed changes, Ambs says.

The law doesn't protect all of the water resources that need protection, "but it's a start," Ambs says, and it's one that enjoyed broad, bipartisan support: the bill passed 99-0 in the Assembly and 31-1 in the Senate.

"The Governor and legislative leaders recognized the importance of protecting our groundwater supplies with this legislation," Ambs says. "It was a significant first step, but much more work needs to be done."

Concerns rise as the water table drops

The strains of meeting growing water demand from a sprawling population are starting to show. Statewide water use has increased 33 percent in the last 15 years and water tables are plummeting in many urban areas as our thirst for more water outstrips our ability to provide it.

Perhaps no region faces this wellspring of challenges like southeast Wisconsin, where populations grew by 212 percent, 181 percent and 255 percent respectively in Ozaukee, Washington and Waukesha counties from 1950-90. In these suburban areas, groundwater use rose 29 percent from 72 to 93 million gallons a day.

Milwaukee draws its water from Lake Michigan, but the bulk of the communities and industries farther inland from the coast tap into a shallow aquifer, a deep sandstone aquifer or both. Both aquifers are being pumped heavily, but the deep aquifer is being depleted far faster than percolating rain or snowmelt can replace it.

"There are quantity issues from declining water levels and overpumping," says Steve Schultz, a water supply department head at Ruekert & Mielke Inc., a consulting engineering firm in Waukesha. "That forces communities to look at other sources of supply, including shallow aquifers and surface water from Lake Michigan. Many communities in southeastern Wisconsin also use deep wells that have a problem with radionuclides. It's very costly to treat this contamination, and in many cases it's cheaper to look for alternative sources," Schultz said.

Mukwonago and New Berlin are among several communities facing a December 2006 deadline for reducing radium levels in their drinking water below a five picocuries per liter limit. Their proposed solutions illustrate the complexity of resolving the economic, environmental, public health and political issues that come into play.

The Village of Mukwonago sought to solve its radium problem by drilling shallow wells. An extensive search revealed that the most productive zone was right next to the Vernon Marsh State Wildlife Area, raising concerns that long-term pumping might affect several fens and one calcareous fen – a rare wetland type. Current laws would not prevent the well siting, so DNR water supply staff negotiated with the village to voluntarily keep its pumping to a minimum and to install monitoring wells. "We are very fortunate that Mukwonago has been willing to work with us," says Sharon Schaver DNR Southeast Region hydrogeologist. "This is the best we can do with the laws we have."

The Village of East Troy needed more capacity and couldn't drill a deep sandstone well due to radium, so it looked for a shallow gravel aquifer. A consultant found a site about a quarter-mile from Lake Beulah in the Town of East Troy. The local lake management district objected, citing that Lake Beulah and a cattail marsh on shore would be dried-up by the new well. DNR was concerned that reduced flow into Lake Beulah could reduce flow into Mukwonago River and affect prime fish habitat.

In response to these concerns, the village conducted extensive groundwater monitoring that showed minimal effect on the marsh and lake. The village also offered to compensate private well owners that may be affected by the well. Negotiations continue.

At 37 square miles, New Berlin is Wisconsin's sixth largest city. It's cleaved by a sub-continental divide – some water runs toward the Great Lakes and the other part of town drains toward the Mississippi River. The city – overcoming initial reluctance from Milwaukee Common Council members who had hard feelings over jobs and residents being lured to the suburbs – successfully contracted to obtain Lake Michigan water for that portion of the city within the Lake Michigan basin.

Wysocki hopes that New Berlin can receive permission from Great Lakes charter members to divert lake water to serve the other portion of the city as well.

"All of our sewage goes back to Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewer District and the basin, so we believe we have a legitimate claim that we are returning substantially the amount of water we use to the basin itself," Wysocki says. The final portion of the city would be served by existing shallow wells. The master plan for future growth aligns development with the water resources below.

"We began to realize that as we continue to develop, access to drinking water becomes an economic interest. It makes good business sense to keep an asset you need to continue developing," Wysocki says.

In all three cases – Mukwonago, East Troy and New Berlin – the communities voluntarily went beyond what state law requires to protect surface waters and other water users. Such regard for the common good isn't mandatory, and that's one reason why business, agriculture, environment and others are coming together to back changes in how Wisconsin manages its water.

"We hope to have a regional approach to managing groundwater to avoid fights in adjoining communities for limited supplies," says Chad Czarkowski, DNR drinking water and groundwater expert in southeastern Wisconsin.

States have to plan rather than react when regulating groundwater use, Schultz says. Many Western states buy and sell water rights. Those rights become a commodity to be traded rather than a shared resource for public betterment. "We hope Wisconsin won't go down that path," Schultz says. "When people can own water rights, they stop working for the public interest and start looking out for their pocketbooks."

Protecting Great Lakes waters from overuse

The Great Lakes shoreline remains another frontier for defining collective rights to water. As growing communities look for new sources of water, it's only natural that those near the coast view tapping those massive waters as a solution.

Drawing water from the lakes brings its own environmental and engineering challenges. Nearshore waters on the Great Lakes are susceptible to contaminants in runoff, untreated stormwater, atmospheric pollutants and the byproducts of wastewater treatment.

Treating Great Lakes water to make it potable is expensive. Keeping the intakes free of zebra mussels and other organisms is surmountable, but requires constant maintenance. Moreover, despite the vastness of the Great Lakes, water demands are increasing from every community on its borders in the United States and Canada.

To better manage the lakes collectively, governors from the eight states and premiers from the two Canadian provinces bordering the Great Lakes signed a Great Lakes Charter in 1985 setting guidelines and principles for managing Great Lakes water. The Charter sets a communal pledge to protect, conserve and restore the waters and the natural resources that depend on the Great Lakes. A key provision of the Charter aimed to regulate large water withdrawals and diversions from metropolitan centers bordering the lakes. A supplementary agreement, called Annex 2001 includes proposed provisions clarifying how, where and when water can be removed or diverted from the lakes, or from groundwater that feeds them. Those provisions are scheduled for public review this summer.

In spite of their vast size, both water quality and water levels can change quickly and unpredictably on the Great Lakes. Natural weather variations and long-term water level cycles compound water diversions by shoreland cities. Low lake levels the last few years left bluffs, shorelines, docks, piers and harbors high and dry.

Inland wells are taking their toll too. A recent study by the Wisconsin Geological and Natural History Survey and the U.S. Geological Survey shows that in the last 60 years well water withdrawals throughout southeastern Wisconsin, Illinois and Michigan were substantial enough to slow and reverse groundwater flow in some areas. In the region between Milwaukee and Waukesha County, groundwater models show that pumping water from the deep aquifers has begun to alter groundwater flow patterns extending to Lake Michigan, the Illinois border and western Waukesha County. Indeed, about 7.5 percent of the groundwater that used to flow toward Lake Michigan never reaches the coast; it's drawn into wells. Most of that water eventually reaches Lake Michigan through storm sewers and as treated wastewater, "but the location, timing and quality of the return flow is different than what it was under natural conditions," the USGS report concludes.

In an era when human demands can change the flow of groundwater from the Great Lakes toward inland communities, each state and Canadian province bordering the Great Lakes must consider what sorts of water diversions should be allowed to provide water for drinking water, agricultural and industrial uses.

Costs drive community searches for options

Some communities are looking to technology to reduce costs of providing water. One method public water utilities are considering is a system called ASR (Aquifer Storage and Recovery). The communities of Green Bay and Oak Creek have both tested ASR as a response to increased demand for water and dropping water tables.

Essentially, ASR occurs in "cycles." Rather than storing water in reservoirs or towers, drinkable water is injected into underground wells, stored until needed and then drawn from the aquifer for public use in each cycle. Costs to construct an ASR well can be about half the traditional costs to build water reservoirs or elevated water towers, but they are still substantial – $200,000 - $800,000 for each million gallons per day of storage capacity. Costs are less to convert existing unused wells than to drill new storage wells.

Until now, Wisconsin's policy has been that groundwater should remain untouched – the idea of injecting water, wastes or any other substances (including the chlorine in treated drinking water) into an aquifer was not an option. As a consequence, state drinking water regulators took a go-slow approach to such proposals. Still, given added costs to meet additional Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA) standards, some public utilities are looking for new ways to manage their water supply. In order to consider ASR, communities must prove three things: first, that the water they are putting into the aquifer meets drinking water standards and comes directly from a municipal system; second, that the water they take out of the aquifer meets drinking water standards before it is distributed; and third, that they can comply with state groundwater standards. By state statute, no new chemicals can be introduced into Wisconsin's groundwater.

Results are mixed. Both communities successfully stored and recovered water; however, monitoring showed elevated levels of substances that may eventually violate drinking water standards.

With stricter drinking water requirements coming in the near future, will the Department of Natural Resources allow systems to use new less-tested techniques to provide reliable drinking water supplies?

"We give them the opportunity to try new technologies and methods where there is ample scientific and practical evidence that they meet drinking water standards," says Don Swailes, chief of DNR's Drinking Water Quality Section. "If they want to try something that does not have a proven track record, they have to prove in a number of ways that it will protect public health, and protect the resource."

Jonas sympathizes with communities facing the considerable expense of treating drinking water, but she doesn't think cost should trump all other concerns. "We have to start asking ourselves, is it that important to have green lawns when we're pumping water so hard that it's getting contaminated with radium and arsenic? If we want to have quality springs, streams and drinking water, we have to start using water responsibly rather than hoping there's some technological fix. We're wasting water and we have to have greater respect for it.

"My grandmother never had running water in her home," Jonas said. "For drinking water, she filled a bucket from a hand pump that sat on the kitchen counter. People knew how deep the water was then. They thought about where they were putting their wastes. I wonder if as a society we've lost some of our appreciation of where our water comes from."

Jonas, who grew up on a farm in southwestern Wisconsin, cherishes the memory of sipping water from a metal cup that hung in the spring house, cutting watercress just below the springs and directly sipping from Castle Rock Springs. "These are precious resources that we should hang onto," she says. "People in the future deserve a chance to see and experience these same plentiful resources."

Lisa Gaumnitz is public affairs manager for DNR's water programs.
Tim Asplund is a DNR water resources specialist.
Megan R. Matthews writes for DNR resource and environmental programs.