NEWS ARCHIVE:     Age: 4,133 days

See This Full Issue

All Previous Archived Issues


April 26, 2011

[EDITOR'S NOTE: May 1-7 is National Drinking Water Awareness Week. This year Wisconsin marks the awareness week with a special focus on private wells, which provide one-third of all Wisconsin families with drinking water and are not regulated as municipal water supplies are.]

MADISON -- With nearly 1.7 million Wisconsinites drinking water from private wells and another 3 million reliant on groundwater from public water wells, the 75th anniversary of the construction code governing private wells is something all Wisconsinites can raise a glass to, state drinking water officials say.

"Our well code was the first in the nation and it has served us well," says Mark Putra, who leads the private water section for the state Department of Natural Resources. "Wisconsin families and groundwater are much safer as a result."

The Wisconsin Well Code, established in 1936, sets standards for well construction, including the distances required between the well and septic tanks, sewer lines, farm feedlots, manure pits, buried fuel tanks, fertilizer and pesticide storage sites and other potential sources of contamination.

Such standards are particularly important because private wells are not regulated; routine testing of water from such wells is strongly recommended by the state but not required. Private well owners are responsible for testing their water regularly, unlike with municipal wells, where routine testing is mandatory for the water suppliers, Putra says.

"When it comes to private wells, we rely on licensed individuals following the construction standards in the code to consistently produce safe drinking water," Putra says. "Those construction features are what protect you from surface and near-surface contaminants."

Those features also protect other users of groundwater, be they neighboring well owners, municipal water suppliers, farms or other businesses.

If a well and water system is properly located, constructed, installed and maintained, it should be able to provide safe water continuously without the need for treatment, according to "You and Your Well." (pdf) People noticing problems with their water can check "What's Wrong with My Water" diagnostic tool for help.

Key milestone in providing safe drinking water

The well construction code was one key milestone in Wisconsin's nation-leading efforts to provide safe drinking water. In the 1800s and early 1900s, lakes and rivers were the main sources of drinking water as well as where people disposed of human and industrial waste. Wastewater treatment wasn't sophisticated at the turn of the century and many lakes and rivers became grossly contaminated, according to Walking on Water, a story in the June 1998 Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine.

The resulting tainted drinking water was too often fatal. Deaths and illnesses from waterborne diseases such as typhoid fever, cholera, small pox, diarrhea and gastroenteritis were common. In the early 1900s the death rate from diarrhea and gastroenteritis was about 11 per 1,000 people; typhoid fever cases were about 100 per 100,000 people.

The quality of drinking water in Wisconsin remained largely unregulated until 1919 when state law started requiring municipalities to follow basic sanitary engineering principles, review of construction plans for proposed treatment plants, and regularly analyze water quality at the State Lab of Hygiene.

In the 1920s and 30s, under the State Board of Health's direction, sewage treatment improved and drinking water was routinely treated using chlorine as a disinfectant and filtration systems to eliminate waterborne disease contamination. Wisconsin's last typhoid outbreak attributed to a public water system occurred in 1929.

Wisconsin's leadership in the mid-1930s set the national standard for protecting private wells and home water supplies when the well code was adopted in 1936. Additional requirements have increased protection for water from both private and public wells since.

FOR MORE INFORMATION CONTACT: Mark Putra (608) 267-7649 or Lisa Gaumnitz - (608) 264-8942

Last Revised: Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Need an expert?

The Office of Communications connects journalists with DNR experts on a wide range of topics. For the fastest response, please email and the first available Communications Specialist will respond to you.