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Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

August 1999

groundwater logo

Protecting the resource

Wisconsin's Groundwater Law
The Groundwater Coordinating Council
Dept. of Natural Resources
Wisconsin Geological and Natural History Survey
Dept. of Transportation
United States Geological Survey
Dept. of Health and Family Services
Dept. of Commerce

Dept. of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection
University of Wisconsin-Extension
Educational institutions
Wisconsin State Laboratory of Hygiene
Research: A closer look at groundwater
Who's in charge of groundwater?
Complete table of contents

"Waters of the State" includes all those portions of Lake Michigan and Lake Superior within the boundaries of Wisconsin, and all lakes, bays, rivers, streams, springs, ponds, wells, impounding reservoirs, marshes, water courses, drainage systems and other surface water or groundwater, natural or artificial, public or private, within the state or its jurisdiction.
Chapter 144, Wisconsin Statutes.

Wisconsin's Groundwater Law

Groundwater protection emerged as a major concern in the late 1970s as interest groups, spurred on by events like Love Canal in New York and the detection of the pesticide Aldicarb in some Wisconsin private wells, debated how to protect groundwater in an industrial and agricultural society. On May 4, 1984, Chapter 160 of the Wisconsin Statutes was signed into law.

To order printed copies of "Groundwater: Protecting Wisconsin's buried treasure," send an email message to Laura Chern with your name, address and number of copies desired.

Chapter 160, dubbed the "Groundwater Law," has been called the most comprehensive regulatory program for groundwater in the country. All state agencies involved in groundwater protection must adhere to numerical standards that define the level at which regulatory agencies must act to clean up pollutants in groundwater. These standards are defined not only by public health, but also by the effect a pollutant can have on the environment and public welfare.

Teamwork and coordination guide efforts to protect Wisconsin's water supply.

© Robert Queen
Teamwork and coordination guide efforts to protect Wisconsin's water supply. © Robert Queen

One of the most important features of Wisconsin's groundwater law is something that is not in it – aquifer classification. Aquifer classification involves looking at the use, value or vulnerability of each aquifer and allowing some to be "written off" as industrial aquifers not fit for human consumption. Wisconsin said "no" to aquifer classification. The philosophical underpinning of Wisconsin's groundwater law is the belief that our groundwater is capable of being used for citizens to drink, and must be protected to assure that it can be.

The Groundwater Coordinating Council

When you think about all the diverse activities and events that can affect groundwater, it's no surprise that the responsibility for managing our buried treasure is delegated to many different governmental agencies. Cooperation is the key – and the Groundwater Coordinating Council (GCC) is the group turning the key. Since 1984, the GCC has served as a model for interagency coordination among state government officials, the governor, and local and federal governments.

Representatives from the departments of Natural Resources; Commerce; Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection; Health and Family Services; Transportation; the University of Wisconsin System; Wisconsin Geological and Natural History Survey and the governor's office serve on the council. The GCC advises and assists state agencies in the coordination of non-regulatory programs and the exchange of information related to groundwater. Increasing public knowledge of the groundwater resource through public outreach efforts and educational materials is an important function of the GCC.

Department of Natural Resources

It's only natural that a resource like groundwater receives a lot of attention from the Department of Natural Resources. From insuring that the water you drink is clean to making sure new landfills are properly sited and constructed, DNR staff are there. Groundwater activities carried out by the DNR encompass protecting the resource, cleaning it up and making sure that public health and environmental standards are set and met.

Protecting groundwater means preventing what goes on the ground from going into groundwater. By looking at soil and rock types, thickness of soil and rock layers, and depth to groundwater, DNR engineers, hydrogeologists, and specialists can make decisions about where waste can be spread, or if a landfill can be safely installed at a particular site. The map of Groundwater Contamination Susceptibility in Wisconsin – put together by DNR, the United States Geological Survey and the Wisconsin Geological and Natural History Survey – shows areas of the state that are more (and less) sensitive to contamination because of the soil and rock overlying the groundwater.

At sites that have contaminated groundwater, DNR staffers must find and remove the source of pollution and determine how far contamination has spread. To do this, they use groundwater monitoring wells to collect samples for chemical analysis. When the boundaries of the contamination are known, the difficult job of cleaning up the groundwater can begin. Some sites take years and millions of dollars to clean up. In the case of groundwater, a drop of prevention is truly worth a gallon of cure.

One way to insure safe drinking water is to protect the area around water supply wells from sources of contamination. Wellhead protection is a relatively new program allowing municipalities to restrict land use around public water supply wells. Industrial sites and wastewater lagoons don't belong next to drinking water wells.

DNR's Source Water Assessment Program identifies land areas that contribute water to public wells, conducts inventories of potential contaminant sources, and determines the susceptibility for each public water supply. The assessments will assist water system operators in preparing wellhead protection plans.

Wisconsin Geological and Natural History Survey

Since 1854, staff at the WGNHS has cataloged Wisconsin's geology, hydrogeology, soils, biology and other natural resources. The Survey is the principal source for maps and records about Wisconsin groundwater and related geology. It supplies counties and regional planning agencies with information to make land use and wellhead protection decisions. Research conducted at the Survey helps state agencies manage Wisconsin's groundwater more effectively.

WGNHS studies the state's geology and helps planning agencies manage Wisconsin's groundwater.
© WI Geological & Natural History Survey
WGNHS studies the state's geology and helps planning agencies manage Wisconsin's groundwater. © Wisconsin Geological & Natural History Survey

The Survey reviews, sorts and catalogs about 18,000 well construction reports yearly. A collection of well cuttings and rock samples from about 300 wells per year are housed and described by the Survey – "hard" evidence of what's hidden below ground. County studies of geology and groundwater are produced for use by anyone interested in the hydrology of a specific area.

Department of Transportation

Salt keeps Wisconsin's highways safe but it can be a source of groundwater pollution. The Department of Transportation has set standards for the storage of road salt. Storage sites must have an impermeable base and cover, and a holding basin must be constructed to contain runoff. DOT works with DNR and Commerce staff to clean up groundwater pollution from petroleum storage tanks and other hazardous waste sites along DOT rights-of-way, and where new roads and bridges are planned. They also set guidelines for how often and how much salt is applied to roads in winter.

Department of Health and Family Services

Who do you call to find out if pollutants in your well or drinking water supply are a health risk to you and your family? Chances are, you contact your local health department. If they don't have the answer, the toxicologists at the DHFS can help you. The DHFS provides health information and advice on contaminants to individuals, and to state, county and local government agencies. When groundwater pollutants affect a community, DHFS staffers work with residents and participate in public meetings to let citizens know the risks associated with contaminants in the water supply. They advise how to best protect families and drinking water.

DHFS protects groundwater and the people who drink it by recommending standards to DNR for substances in groundwater that can cause health problems. The agency conducts studies on the harmful effects of chemicals to determine "how much is too much." It also works with DATCP to determine how new pesticides will break down in groundwater and what health risks are associated with these compounds.

Department of Commerce

Ensuring that underground and above-ground storage tanks don't leak keeps staff at Commerce busy. The agency keeps records on over 180,000 tanks used to store gasoline, fuel oil and other products. If a tank does leak, the department is there to help with the Petroleum Environmental Cleanup Fund (PECFA). The fund provides money to reimburse owners for part of the cleanup costs of leaks from petroleum product storage systems and home heating oil tanks.

Commerce has an interest in another kind of tank – septic tanks. With the assistance of local and county officials who issue permits and/or conduct regular inspections, Commerce helps protect groundwater.

Commerce also helps individuals, businesses, local development organizations and municipalities revive abandoned industrial sites or "brownfields" by providing grant money for site assessment and cleanup. Since the program's inception in 1997, 321 acres have been revitalized. This translates into 2,800 new jobs at 26 different locations throughout the state.

Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection

Pesticides and nutrients can leach to groundwater, causing risks to human health and the environment. DATCP is responsible for regulating most aspects of agrichemical application, storage and cleanup in Wisconsin. To promote the proper handling, storage and safe use of farm chemicals, pesticide applicators and sellers must complete a certification program and be licensed by DATCP. Field staff regularly inspect if storage and mixing facilities comply with groundwater protection regulations. If a spill does occur, money and staff are available to help with the cleanup.

The Nutrient Management Program helps prevent groundwater pollution by providing funding to counties to help farmers write nutrient management plans. Nitrogen can leach into groundwater if manure and fertilizers are applied to crops in excess of what is used by plants. The Agricultural Clean Sweep program provides funding to counties for collection and disposal of farm chemicals. Farmers can safely get rid of old chemicals for free.

University of Wisconsin-Extension

The wise use of the groundwater resource is a priority for the University of Wisconsin – Extension. Traditionally, extension agents and specialists provided farm families with the tools needed to improve the quality of life. Today their role has evolved into maintaining farm profitability while protecting the environment and conserving natural resources. Extension agents provide outreach to farmers, school children, public officials and interested citizens on water treatment devices, wise land use policy such as wellhead protection, and other groundwater topics. With offices located in each county, outreach can be tailored to local needs. Extension promotes private and public partnerships to conserve and protect our water resources.

The Nutrient and Pest Management Program's crop plots on working farms promote the careful use of manure and pesticides. The Farm*A*Syst program helps farmers identify and correct risks to groundwater around farmsteads.

Educational institutions

From university classes on hydrogeology to State Fair displays, education is the most important tool we can use to safeguard groundwater. Colleges and universities offer courses at the undergraduate and graduate levels to prepare students for careers in hydrogeology, wastewater management, soil science and other disciplines vital to groundwater protection. They also conduct basic research on groundwater development, movement and cleanup technologies. Vocational and technical colleges offer associate degrees in fields related to agriculture and water resources management. Environmentally safe methods of farming are taught in UW agricultural "short courses." Basin educators provide land and water resources outreach in the state's major river basins.

United States Geological Survey – Water Resources Division

Keeping tabs on the amount of groundwater in Wisconsin is the job of the USGS Water Division. Starting in 1946 with just a few wells, the USGS, in cooperation with the Wisconsin Geological and Natural History Survey, now collects water level measurements in over 170 Wisconsin wells. Some of the wells are measured daily using electronic recorders; others are measured weekly, monthly or quarterly. The data serve as a starting point for evaluating the effect new wells and land development will have on groundwater levels, wetlands, streams and lakes. For example, a study of the Lower Fox River Valley, which includes Green Bay and the Fox Cities, showed that relocating wells and manipulating pumping rates could provide more water while keeping groundwater supplies more stable.

Wisconsin State Laboratory of Hygiene

The Wisconsin Laboratory of Hygiene provides water tests and analysis to private well owners and state agencies. Researchers conduct basic groundwater research for state agencies and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, to help determine public water supply policy. An extensive survey of viruses in groundwater across the state of Wisconsin and in parts of Minnesota and Maryland is being conducted at SLH. The results of this survey will shed light on the extent of virus occurrence in groundwater, and help determine whether or not public water suppliers using groundwater will be required to treat their water for viruses as part of EPA's Groundwater Rule.

Research: A closer look at groundwater

Figuring out what's going on underground isn't easy when you're stuck up above – that's why research is crucial to groundwater protection. As new information from surveys, tests and experiments filters in, the picture becomes more complete. With a more complete knowledge of the resource, decisions on groundwater use can be made with more confidence.

Two kinds of research are being conducted by state agencies. Basic research is done to discover new information about groundwater. Applied research uses basic research to solve specific problems, and develop or improve methods, products and materials used in groundwater management.

The top priority for basic research is figuring out how pollutants move and change in groundwater. Understanding how contaminants move around underground, and how minerals and organisms in soil and groundwater alter pollutants will help with future cleanup efforts. The effect different land uses have on groundwater quality and quantity are also hot topics in groundwater research. Protecting groundwater from contamination by managing land use can insure clean drinking water and healthy lakes, rivers, streams and wetlands.

The University of Wisconsin system plays a lead role in conducting groundwater research. UW researchers are developing new technologies for cleaning up groundwater. Bioremediation, or using living organisms to degrade or transform hazardous organic contaminants, is being studied to determine if it can replace costlier cleanup methods. The impact of land use on groundwater is being studied on individual farm fields and in entire watersheds. How contaminated groundwater affects surface waters and the organisms that live in them is also an important research topic.

Regular sampling of surface waters and groundwater provides valuable data for decisionmaking and best management practices. © DNR Photo
Drawing groundwater samples © DNR Photo

DATCP hydrogeologists find out what areas of the state are vulnerable to pesticide and nitrate pollution and which pesticides are present in groundwater by testing samples of water from monitoring wells throughout Wisconsin. A recent survey of private wells conducted in areas that have adopted the "atrazine rule" – which prohibits the use of the herbicide within a one-mile radius of wells that have greater than three parts per billion of atrazine and its metabolites – showed some decline in the levels of the chemical. Laboratory technicians develop techniques for analyzing water samples for new pesticides and their breakdown chemicals.

Extension also conducts applied research to inform citizens about what they can do to protect groundwater. For example, the Central Wisconsin Groundwater Center at UW-Stevens Point conducts research on agricultural impacts on groundwater. The center also works with the UW-Stevens Point Environmental Task Force Laboratory to educate private well owners about their well systems and drinking water quality.

At the State Lab of Hygiene, researchers study the source and occurrence of the pathogens Cryptosporidium and Giardia in groundwater. The SLH is also involved in a survey of the Fox River as part of a Superfund Site assessment. The lab analyzed water samples and minnows taken from the river for PCBs. In conjunction with DNR, SLH is assessing the impact of landfills on groundwater. The lab is testing water from wells near landfills for the presence of 75 different volatile organic chemicals.

How groundwater and surface water interact is studied by the USGS at several Wisconsin locations. Knowing how lakes, streams, rivers and wetlands are replenished by groundwater will give a better idea of the effects of land use on water quantity and quality. Other areas of research include mercury contamination and control of barnyard runoff to streams.

Research priorities for the WGNHS include understanding groundwater recharge; examining how groundwater flows through fractured bedrock in areas such as environmentally sensitive Door County; determining the best methods for identifying wellhead protection zones, determining the hydrogeologic properties of landforms such as the Maquoketa shale (an important barrier protecting deeper groundwater); and studying the hydrogeology of Wisconsin's aquifers. Applied research includes hydrogeologic and engineering properties of glacial materials, and the identifying of hydrogeologic units throughout Wisconsin.

Since 1972, DOT has monitored the effect of road salt on groundwater by sampling wells at 20 sites located along highways. Other research projects include evaluating different de-icers, and determining salt application rates. In cooperation with the USGS, DOT is investigating how groundwater changes when wetland are created or restored.