send
Send Letter to Editor

Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

logo1.jpg - 18141 Bytes

April 2006

Protecting the resource

Wisconsin's groundwater law

Natasha Kassulke and Laura Chern


The Groundwater Coordinating Council
Department of Natural Resources
Wisconsin Geological and Natural History Survey
Department of Transportation (DOT)
Department of Health and Family Services (DHFS)
Department of Commerce
Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection (DATCP)
University of Wisconsin-Extension
Educational institutions
United States Geological Survey – Water Resources Division (USGS)
Wisconsin State Laboratory of Hygiene (SLH)

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.

Contents

Dubbed the "groundwater law," Chapter 160 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.

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 the diverse activities and events affecting groundwater, it's no surprise that the responsibility for managing our buried treasure is delegated to many governmental agencies. Cooperation is 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 coordinating non-regulatory programs and sharing groundwater information. Increasing public knowledge of the groundwater resource through public outreach efforts and educational materials is an important GCC function.

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 is there. DNR's groundwater activities include 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 hydrogeologists, engineers, and specialists can make decisions about where waste can be spread, or if a landfill can be safely installed at a particular site.

Research can benefit both surface waters and groundwater. © DNR Photo
Research can benefit both surface waters
and groundwater.

© DNR Photo

But looking at the natural environment isn't enough to predict how contaminants will move in the subsurface. Groundwater contamination susceptibility in Wisconsin is only one piece of a very complex groundwater protection puzzle. Land use, groundwater recharge and proximity to surface water are also important considerations when trying to site landfills or large farm operations.

One way to help protect public health is to protect the area around water supply wells from sources of contamination. Wellhead protection is a program that requires municipalities to restrict land use around new public water supply wells and encourages plans around older wells. Under the DNR's Source Water Assessment Program, land areas that contribute water to public wells were identified, potential contaminant sources were inventoried, and the susceptibility for each public water supply was evaluated. The assessments assist water system operators in preparing wellhead protection plans.

New rules for siting large livestock operations, stormwater infiltration devices and farm nutrient management require separation distances between contamination sources affecting private and public wells and direct conduits to groundwater.

In addition, starting in 2010, Wisconsin's smart growth laws require that local government programs and actions that affect land use must be guided by and consistent with a locally adopted comprehensive plan that addresses water supply.

At sites with contaminated groundwater, the responsible party 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 contamination boundaries are known, the difficult job of cleaning up the groundwater begins. 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.

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 state 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 more effectively manage Wisconsin's groundwater. 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. This collection from 44,000 wells has been cataloged in a database and can be viewed at the survey's Research Collections and Education Center in Mount Horeb. County and regional studies of geology and groundwater are produced for use by anyone interested in the hydrology of a specific area.

Department of Transportation (DOT)

Salt keeps Wisconsin's highways safe but can be a source of groundwater pollution. Because salt is bad for the environment and the roads, DOT is always looking for salt alternatives and ways to minimize salt use. Temperature sensors in pavement and remote weather stations along state highways are used to help keep county highway crews prepared to do battle with winter storms and to help predict when pavement conditions will require applications of chemical agents or salt.

The Department of Transportation has construction standards for storing road salt to contain runoff that could contaminate groundwater. 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. DOT also tests wayside wells for thirsty travelers.

Department of Health and Family Services (DHFS)

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? Start with your local health department. If they don't have the answer, the health experts 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. DHFS 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

Commerce ensures underground and above-ground storage tanks don't leak. The agency keeps records on over 72,000 tanks used to store gasoline, fuel oil and other products. The Petroleum Environmental Cleanup Fund or PECFA, is used to reimburse owners for the cost of removing older tanks and cleaning up petroleum contaminated sites. Commerce regulates installation, maintenance and abandonment of new tanks.

Commerce 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, 1,240 acres have been revitalized. This translates into about 4,600 new jobs at over 100 different locations throughout the state.

Commerce regulates private onsite sewage systems and stormwater infiltration practices as part of their plumbing code. Restrictions on where and how these onsite sewage systems are installed protect private and public wells and groundwater from contamination.

Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection (DATCP)

Pesticides, fertilizers and nutrients can leach to groundwater, causing human health and environmental risks. 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 occurs, 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. The Clean Sweep program provides farmers and homeowners with safe options to dispose of pesticides and other hazardous chemicals for free. Businesses pay a portion of disposal costs for these substances.

University of Wisconsin-Extension

Wise groundwater use is a priority for the University of Wisconsin-Extension. Traditionally, extension agents and specialists provided farm families with the agricultural tools, information and skills training. Today their role has evolved into promoting community development, maintaining farm profitability while protecting the environment, and conserving natural resources. Extension educators provide outreach to citizens, farmers, school children, and public officials on water testing, water treatment devices, wise land use policy such as wellhead protection, and other groundwater topics. With offices located in each county, outreach activities can be tailored to local needs. Basin educators, located in each of the state's major river basins, provide land and water resources outreach to local communities. Extension promotes and assists 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. Community Drinking Water Programs help private well owners to identify individual water quality concerns and community-wide groundwater issues.

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 that prepare students for careers in hydrogeology, wastewater management, soil science and other disciplines vital to groundwater protection. They also conduct 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."

United States Geological Survey – Water Resources Division (USGS)

The USGS Water Division's job is to keep tabs on groundwater quantity in Wisconsin. Starting in 1946 with just a few wells, the USGS, 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 serves 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 in the Great Lakes Basin showed groundwater that once flowed toward Lake Michigan is now pumped, used and discharged as treated wastewater to surface water within the Mississippi Basin. This may affect surface water flow and fish habitat in tributaries feeding Lake Michigan.

Wisconsin State Laboratory of Hygiene (SLH)

The Wisconsin Laboratory of Hygiene is the main environmental testing laboratory for the DNR, DHFS and other state agencies. The Laboratory performs a variety of chemical and biological drinking water tests, ranging from exotic pathogenic bacteria to potentially cancer-causing chemical contaminants. In addition to extensive testing of Wisconsin's public water supplies, the laboratory also offers private well owners basic drinking water tests such as an analysis for E. Coli. The presence of E. coli indicates that a water supply may be contaminated with fecal material and thus presents a health threat. Local commercial laboratories can also provide certain well water testing, and the Laboratory of Hygiene partners with them so that high quality testing is readily available throughout the state.