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August 7, 2012

Loans to communities for improvements doubled, focus on nitrate problems increased

MADISON -- Ninety-six percent of Wisconsin's public water systems served drinking water that met all health-based standards in 2011, a year also notable for a doubling in the amount of financial help provided to upgrade infrastructure and for small systems to address nitrate standards violations.

"Once again water utilities, water associations, laboratory staff, state staff and others did an exemplary job of providing water that meets safe drinking water standards," says Jill Jonas, who leads the Department of Natural Resources drinking water and groundwater program. "We're also happy to report that during these tough economic times we were able to provide more financial aid to communities to help them address contaminant problems and build capacity for the future."

Ninety-six percent, or 10,951 of 11,439 systems, served drinking water that met all health standards, the same proportion as last year and above the federal goal of 95 percent.

Also of note in 2011, 18 communities received a total of $36.5 million in financial aid from DNR, most of which was low interest loans. Such loans can provide a cost savings of up 30 percent to communities, enabling them to address challenges more quickly and cheaply, she says. That compares to the $18 million provided to 14 communities in 2010.

These and other details summarizing Wisconsin's public water systems' performance as a whole between Jan. 1, 2011 and Dec. 31, 2011 were submitted to EPA earlier this month in the "2011 Annual Drinking Water Report [PDF]."

Wisconsin has more public water systems than any other state except Michigan, ranging from utilities serving the state's largest communities, to churches, restaurants and taverns. About 4.9 million of Wisconsin's 5.6 million residents get their drinking water from community public water systems while the rest tap private wells, according to the report.

Of the 4 percent of Wisconsin public water systems reporting at least one violation of health-based standards, their elevated contaminant levels did not mean that people who drank the water got sick.

The second most common violation was elevated levels of nitrate, a pollutant largely resulting from fertilizer application to crops, and the third was elevated levels of arsenic, a naturally occurring contaminant. Forty water systems had water samples in which nitrate levels exceeded the standards in 2011 and 18 systems had arsenic violations.

As radium violations were addressed by dozens of communities, DNR staff were able to spend more time in 2011 working to address nitrate problems. DNR staff have been working with day cares, schools and factories - so-called nontransient noncommunity systems -- to reduce nitrate levels in the wake of a new evaluation of the risk the contaminant poses, Boushon says.

Federal standards set the permissible level of nitrate in drinking water to 10 mg/l, but transient noncommunity public water supply systems -- those which serve at least 25 people at least 60 days of the year -- can operate with levels of up to 20 mg/l if the state agrees. Transient noncommunity systems do not serve the same people water every day - unlike community water systems that provide drinking water to homes for daily use -- so the exposure to contaminants would be less.

Concerned that federal nitrate standards were not protective enough of the general population, however, DNR asked the state Department of Health Services to review the scientific evidence. Nitrate levels that exceed the federal standard for drinking water have long been regarded as an acute risk for infants and pregnant women because the contaminant interferes with the oxygen-carrying capacity of blood and can cause infants who drink water or formula with high nitrate levels to get seriously ill and die. Some scientific studies have found evidence suggesting that women who drink nitrate-contaminated water during pregnancy are more likely to have babies with birth defects.

State health officials concluded in 2009 that long-term exposure of a year or more to nitrates in drinking water could have adverse health effects even in adults. So DNR has notified nontransient noncommunity water systems that they must reduce nitrate levels in water to below 10 mg/L. About half of the systems that had violations now comply with the standards through taking actions including drilling new wells or installing water treatment equipment. DNR staff are working with the remainder to correct the problem.

FOR MORE INFORMATION CONTACT: Lee Boushon (608) 266-0857; Mark Nelson (608) 267-4230

Last Revised: Tuesday, August 07, 2012

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