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Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

August 1999

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When you need assistance


Who can answer my questions about groundwater?
How safe is my drinking water?

Complete table of contents

Who can answer my questions about groundwater?

There are people all over the state who can help you understand Wisconsin's buried groundwater treasure.

1. Department of Natural Resources water supply specialists at the six regional offices can tell you more about the Wisconsin Well Code, show you how to disinfect your well, explain sources of contamination, sample wells, and give advice on drinking water problems and the proper disposal of toxic household products. For locations, names and numbers, visit the Department of Natural Resources.

2. The Wisconsin Geological and Natural History Survey has maps, well construction reports and other information on aquifers and geology. For a list of WGNHS publications, write Wisconsin Geological and Natural History Survey, 3817 Mineral Point Rd., Madison, WI 53705-5121. (608) 262-1705. Or visit Wisconsin Geological and Natural History Survey.

3.Your county University of Wisconsin-Extension office can help plan safe, functional farmyards and rural homes. Call or write your extension office for booklets on safe drinking water, groundwater protection, best management practices for pesticide and fertilizer use and other topics. Look for the address and phone number under the "county" listing in the phone book white pages, or visit University of Wisconsin Extension.

4. The Department of Commerce has the details on proper septic system operation. Write Commerce, Division of Safety and Buildings, 201 W. Washington Ave., P.O. Box 7969, Madison, WI 53707-7969 and ask for publication SBD-7009, "Is the grass greener over your septic system?" Visit Department of Commerce.

5. The Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection offers information on best management practices for farms and atrazine prohibition areas. Write DATCP, 2811 Agriculture Dr., Madison, WI 53708-8911. (608)224-5002. Visit Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection.

6. The Central Wisconsin Groundwater Center is a clearinghouse for information on groundwater issues statewide, with a strong focus on Wisconsin's Central Sands area. The center maintains a database of private wells tested through the UW-Stevens Point Environmental Task Force Laboratory, conducts applied research, and offers educational materials and programs. Write CWGC, College of Natural Resources Room 224, University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point, Stevens Point, WI 54481-3897. (715) 346-4270. Visit Central Wisconsin Groundwater Center.

How safe is my drinking water?

"Every user of well water should know something about the source and underground motions of his water supply. In this way he may guard against contamination."
C.F. Tolman, 1937, from the first textbook on the subject entitled "Ground Water"

Many Wisconsinites, urban and rural, are concerned about the quality of the water they drink, with good reason. As you've read in the preceding pages, threats to a safe water supply exist everywhere, the result of our daily activities. How do you know if your water is safe to drink?

Safe drinking water is a gift from one generation to the next.

© Robert Queen
Safe drinking water is a gift from one generation to the next. © Robert Queen

If your water is supplied by a community public water system, your water utility will mail a Consumer Confidence Report to you each fall. The report will include information on the source of the utility's drinking water, the treatment used to purify water, any contaminants that have been found in drinking water, and the potential health effects of those contaminants. Reports will also identify where additional information about the water supply can be found and how citizens can become involved in protecting water sources. Utilities must provide updated reports for their consumers annually.

Private well owners should have their wells tested periodically. If you have reason to believe chemicals have contaminated your water, contact your DNR private water supply specialist to investigate. Private laboratories do tests for chemical contaminants, such as volatile organic compounds or pesticides. Check the Yellow Pages under "laboratories" or "water analysis" or ask your DNR private water supply specialist for the phone number of a certified lab in your area. The cost will range from $30 to $1,000, depending on the number and type of chemicals analyzed and the
test methods.

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.

The State Laboratory of Hygiene will test your drinking water for several pollutants including bacteria, nitrate or fluoride. The bacteria, nitrate and fluoride tests can be made from the same sample bottle of water and cost $17.00 each in 1999. For a test kit, call the lab at (800) 442-4618 or write the State Laboratory of Hygiene, Environmental Health Division, 2601 Agriculture Dr., P.O. Box 7996, Madison, WI 53707-7996. Private labs will also do these tests.

If bacterial contamination has occurred, check for flooded well pits, broken seals, improperly abandoned wells in the area, especially old dug wells, quarries, any physical changes to the surrounding area, such as housing developments or landfills, spills or waste dumping.

Wells can be disinfected by displacing all the water in the well with a mixture of bleach (containing at least 5 percent chlorine) and water or by dropping chlorine tablets or powder down the well. Contact the DNR Bureau of Drinking Water and Groundwater, at P.O. Box 7921, Madison, WI 53707-7921 or call (608) 266-6669 for literature on private well operation.

Old wells may need to be upgraded to provide a safe water supply.

© DNR Photo
Old wells may need to be upgraded to provide a safe water supply. © DNR Photo

If high nitrate is the problem, the well construction and location should be checked. Use safe water that's known to be low in nitrate for pregnant women and infants under six months old.

Wells can sometimes be deepened to get past the contamination. Inadequate well installations may be upgraded. Wells located in pits, for example can be extended above ground and the pit filled in. These are costly options, however; it's best to have the work done properly in the beginning to avoid problems later. Your DNR private water supply specialist can give you advice on obtaining a safe drinking water supply.

If your water utility or a lab test alerts you to the presence of high levels of chemicals in your drinking water, you may be advised to drink bottled water or drill a new well. But what about low levels of contaminants? Will small quantities of benzene a major component of gasoline, or perchloroethylene (PCE), a chemical used in dry-cleaning solvents, make your water undrinkable?

The answer is no. That's not to say, however, that the water is totally safe to drink. For instance, the Environmental Protection Agency estimates that one part per billion of PCE in drinking water could lead to one or two additional cases of cancer in a population of one million people who drink such water over a 70-year lifetime.

Contamination of drinking water, even at very low levels, should not be taken lightly, nor should the risks be exaggerated. To keep the risk of contamination as low as possible, public agencies and private citizens must continue to make tough decisions on what's worth the risk and what's not.