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Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

August 1999

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How to protect the groundwater you drink and use

Examine your own habits | Conservation
Waste minimization | Your septic system
What else can you do? | Properly locate and construct wells
Complete table of contents
"When water chokes you, what are you to drink to wash it down?" Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, 384-322 B.C.

You've read about what government and industry are doing to guard groundwater. Now, it's your turn.

Examine your own habits

Everyday activities can affect groundwater quality. Think about the ways you use water at home. If you've always considered pure, clean water to be a cheap, unlimited resource, chances are you're accustomed to wasting water and haven't been concerned about what you pour down the drain.

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.

A little common sense will go a long way toward keeping Wisconsin's groundwater clean and plentiful. Here are some ways to cut back on water use and protect groundwater:


A waster of water is a waster of better." Old Irish adage

Use water-saving devices and appliances: Since 1992, new toilets manufactured in the U.S. use only 1.6 gallons of water – much less than the 6 gallons each flush used to consume. If you have an older toilet, toilet dams or inserts placed in the toilet tank retain water during flushing and can save up to three gallons per flush. A plastic bottle weighted with washed pebbles makes a good insert. Low-flow faucet aerators (for either inside- or outside-threaded faucets) mix water with air and can reduce the amount of water flowing from your sinks.

Faucet aerators are inexpensive. Put one on every faucet and you'll cut back on water use every time you open a tap.

© Robert Queen
Faucet aerators help save water. © Robert Queen

Look for and fix leaks: A dripping faucet can waste 20 or more gallons of water a day; a leaking toilet, several thousand gallons a year. An inexpensive washer is usually all you need to fix a leaky faucet. Adjusting or replacing the inexpensive float arm or plunger ball can often stop toilet leaks.

Drinking water: Keep a pitcher of drinking water in the refrigerator to quench your thirst without running the tap.

Bathing and showering: A water-saving showerhead can cut the amount of water used to about three gallons per minute without sacrificing the feeling of a good drenching. Turn off the water while soaping up during a shower to save extra gallons. Bathers should put the stopper in the drain before running the water, then mix cold and hot for the right temperature. Turn off the tap while you shave or brush your teeth.

Dish washing: If you wash dishes by hand, don't leave the water running while washing them. Make sure the dishwasher is full before you turn it on; it takes as much water and energy to wash a half-load as it does to wash a full load.

Laundry: Always set the fill level to match the size load you are washing. Remember: Full loads save water because fewer loads are necessary.

Lawn care: Water your lawn slowly, thoroughly and as infrequently as possible. Water at night to minimize evaporation and help reduce high demands on water supplies during the day. Consider reducing the size of your lawn by planting trees, shrubs and ground covers.

Waste minimization

Household toxic wastes: Don't use household drains as ashtrays, wastebaskets or garbage disposals! Toilets (and kitchen sinks, garage drains and basement washtubs) are not the places to discard varnish, paint stripper, fats, oil, antifreeze, leftover crabgrass killer or any other household chemicals. Just because it's down the drain doesn't mean it's gone! These products may end up in your water supply, especially if you have a septic system. Store your toxic products in tightly sealed containers in a safe, dry spot, share them with others who can use them, or bring them to Clean Sweep events in your community; call your DNR regional office, County Extension office or DATCP for details.

Lawns: Reduce or eliminate the use of lawn pesticides and fertilizers. A significant amount of these chemicals can leach into the groundwater. Test your soil first to determine if it needs additional nutrients. If you do fertilize, do it in the first week of May or after September 15.

Recycle! Reuse or recycle plastic bags and containers, aluminum cans, tin cans, glass, cardboard, newspaper, paper bags and other paper products. Don't dump waste oil down the drain or on the ground – bring it to community collection tanks where it will be picked up and reprocessed. Recycling conserves landfill space. Less garbage in the landfill means less harmful leachate that could contaminate groundwater.

Biodegradable soaps and cleansers: Go easy on groundwater! Use soaps and household cleansers that are nontoxic and biodegradable. Or try these environmentally friendly alternatives: Baking soda on a damp cloth to scrub sinks, appliances and toilet bowls; a mixture of white vinegar and water forcleaning ceramic tile, doors, windows and other glass surfaces; pure soap flakes and borax for washing clothes.

Dishwashing: Use the minimum amount of detergent needed to clean plates, glasses and silverware satisfactorily. Choose a non-phosphate automatic dishwashing detergent.

Garbage disposals: They're noisy, use a lot of water and electricity, and increase the amount of waste in the water going to the wastewater treatment plant or your septic system. Compost your kitchen waste and use it to mulch yard plants and hold moisture in the soil.

For more ideas, request the pamphlet "Better Homes and Groundwater" (publication number WR-386-95) from the DNR Bureau of Drinking Water and Groundwater, Box 7921, Madison, WI 53707-7921. Or call 608/266-6669.

Take care of your septic system

Even properly sited, permitted, constructed and maintained septic systems can pollute groundwater, especially if the soil is highly permeable or the water table is close to the surface. They all fail after about 20 to 25 years of use. You can keep your septic system in good working order by following these four tips:

1. Be cautious about what you put in. Ordinary amounts of bleaches, lye, soaps and detergents will not harm the system, but household chemicals like paint thinner, drain cleaner, solvents, gasoline, oil and pesticides should NEVER go into a septic system. Once released in the absorption field, these toxic products can leach into groundwater and into our water supply.

Never flush bones, coffee grounds, vegetable peelings, fruit rinds, disposable diapers, sanitary napkins, tampons, bath oils, cigarette butts or other materials that do not break down easily into a septic tank.

Avoid dumping grease down the drain. It can build up in the tank and clog the inlet or the soil absorption field.

2. Have your septic tank inspected once a year. A septage pumper can measure the level of scum and sludge that has built up. The tank should be pumped when the sludge and scum occupy one-third of the tank's liquid capacity. NEVER go into a septic tank – it may be full of toxic gases.

Hire only licensed septic tank pumpers to clean out your tank. They should pump through the manhole, inspect inlet and outlet baffles for damage, and service any outlet filters that may be installed. County sanitarians will have the names of licensed septage haulers in your area.

3. There are no known chemicals, yeasts, bacterial preparations, enzymes or other additives for septic tanks that will eliminate the need for periodic cleaning.

4. Go easy on your system. Don't do more than three loads of laundry per day (a dishwasher cycle equals one load). Minimize the use of your garbage disposal.

Properly locate and construct wells

Wells can be a safe, dependable source of water if sited wisely and built correctly. Here are five points to remember:

1. Ask questions if you plan to drill a new well or intend to purchase property with an existing well. Talk to your neighbors: Do they have any problems with their wells? How deep are wells in the area? Were there ever any contaminated wells in the area? How was the contamination taken care of? How was the land where you want to drill the well used in the past? Is there a Wisconsin Unique Well Number?

Do your homework before installing a new well.

© Tom Riewe
Do your homework before installing a new well. © Tom Riewe

Talk to local government officials: What local laws govern private water supplies? Are housing densities low enough to ensure enough water for everyone's needs? Are there zoning restrictions limiting certain types of land use? What current land and water uses – irrigation, a quarry – in the area might affect your water quality or quantity?

2. Consult the Wisconsin Well Code. Established in 1936, the Wisconsin Well Code is administered by the Department of Natural Resources, which sets standards for well construction. The code lists the distances required between the well and septic tanks, sewage drainfields or dry wells, sewer lines, farm feedlots, animal yards, manure pits, buried fuel tanks, fertilizer and pesticide storage sites, lakes, streams, sludge disposal and other potential sources of contamination. Wells should always be located up the groundwater gradient and as far from these potential sources of contamination as possible.

3. Hire reputable, experienced, licensed installers. Only people registered with the Department of Natural Resources and holding current well driller permits should drill wells. Only people holding DNR pump installer permits may install pumps. No license is required if you construct your own well or install your own pump. However, state law requires that the work be done according to the state well code.

The well driller is responsible for flushing the well, test pumping it, disinfecting it, collecting a water sample for bacteriological tests, sending a well constructor's report to the Department of Natural Resources and providing the owner with a copy. This document contains a record of the soil and rock layers penetrated by the well; lists the work performed and materials used; and the unique well number assigned to your well so the DNR can keep a record over time of your well water quality. It's important information to have on hand if your well is ever contaminated. Reports collected over a period of time in one area can give researchers an idea of what's going on underground.

A pump installer, if different from the driller, must disinfect the well and collect a water sample to check for bacteria.

4. How often should I have my well tested? Have your well tested for bacteria and nitrate annually, and at any other time if a change in odor, taste, color or clarity causes you to suspect contamination. Check for nitrate when infants or pregnant women use the water.

It's a good idea to have well water tested once a year.

© DNR Photo
It's a good idea to have well water tested once a year. © DNR Photo

5. How do I fill in an old unused well? Fill and seal unused wells with concrete or bentonite, a type of clay. Your DNR regional water supply staff, county sanitarian or local well driller can show you how to close off the old well to prevent groundwater pollution. For a copy of the pamphlet "Well Abandonment" (publication number DG-016-98rev) write DNR Bureau of Drinking Water and Groundwater, Box 7921, Madison, WI 53707-7921 or call 608/266-6669.

What else can you do?

Report illegal or abandoned waste sites or incidents of improper waste disposal. Your DNR water supply specialist relies on you to be the lookout for potential groundwater pollution. Call 1-800-943-0003 if you see someone dumping waste illegally or find an old dumpsite.

Get involved in groundwater management. Wisconsin has a good system of public hearings and reviews where you can express your opinions and learn more about local and statewide groundwater issues. To find out about hearings, call (608) 266-0848.

Keep up with local land use and waste disposal issues. Housing, commercial development, highway construction and landfills may have an adverse effect on groundwater quality if not carefully planned and constructed. City, town or county governments may need to institute zoning regulations or prohibit or restrict activities that could endanger groundwater. Find out what the land use issues are in your community and stay informed; encourage your neighbors to do the same. Attend community meetings and let your elected officials and utility operators know that provisions to protect groundwater must be the first step in any local land use or waste disposal proposal.