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September 18, 2012

MADISON - Better understanding viruses in groundwater and their risk to human health, and finding solutions to contaminants that seep into groundwater and get into public and private water wells are among the top recommendations made to lawmakers by a multi-agency group coordinating groundwater information.

The Groundwater Coordinating Council, or GCC, has for more than 25 years ensured that state agencies including health, agriculture, natural resources, the University of Wisconsin system and others work together to develop effective public education about groundwater, pursue joint monitoring and research, and foster collaborative cost-effective solutions to groundwater programs. The council is required to report annually to the legislature on Wisconsin's progress in protecting its groundwater resources, their overall condition, and emerging threats to those resources.

The GCC report can be found online on the Department of Natural Resources website by searching for "groundwater" and looking under the GCC heading.

"Collaborative research and monitoring in Wisconsin in the past year have significantly contributed to our understanding of groundwater issues," says Ken Johnson, DNR Water Division administrator and chair of the council. "Our report reflects work that all agencies agree are most critical to help ensure safe sources of drinking water. That includes recommendations to address nitrate and viral contamination that especially put kids at risk and recommendations to ensure sustainable supplies of clean groundwater for Wisconsin's citizens, industry, agriculture and our wildlife."

Report recommendations call for Wisconsin to evaluate the prevalence in groundwater and groundwater wells of viruses and other microbial contaminants, and to develop appropriate responses. The report notes that viruses "have recently been unexpectedly identified in municipal and domestic wells," challenging standard thinking that such contaminants would be filtered out and absorbed before reaching groundwater aquifers that supply public and private drinking water wells.

"More research is needed to refine our understanding of their occurrence and threat to human health," the report recommends, and references research on viruses and other microbial agents in public and private wells [PDF].

The report also recommends Wisconsin find solutions to pollution that seeps into groundwater, noting that one-third of private wells contain at least a detectable level of pesticide or pesticide breakdown products, and that 10 percent of private wells statewide contain elevated levels of nitrate, with significantly higher rates in agricultural areas.

"Nitrate contamination that approaches unsafe levels in drinking water is pervasive in Wisconsin - posing an acute risk to infants and a chronic risk of serious disease in adults," the report states.

Federal, state and local land conservation programs have long encouraged voluntary participation in agricultural practices to reduce nitrate and other pollutants, but such efforts are expected to get a boost by Wisconsin's development of a nutrient reduction strategy that specifically focuses on reducing nitrate and phosphorus pollution.

Also, a DNR pilot project is getting underway to work with local landowners and counties where nitrate levels in drinking water supplied by public system are high to develop and implement best management practices for reducing nitrate contribution to groundwater and to monitor the results of those practices.

The report also contains ongoing recommendation, and highlights emerging issues for groundwater including frac sand mining, metallic mining and dairy industry expansion and concentration.

FOR MORE INFORMATION CONTACT: Jeff Helmuth (608) 266-5234; Mary Ellen Vollbrecht (608) 266-2104

Last Revised: Tuesday, September 18, 2012

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