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Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

August 1999

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Using groundwater

The quality and quantity of groundwater varies
On the home front
Thirsty cities
A fluid economy
Wet and wild

Complete table of contents

"Dear Dr. Science: There is an entire science devoted to ground water. How do they grind water and how is it effectively marketed?"
Dr. Science, Duck's Breath Mystery Theatre, National Public Radio, August 21, 1986

Welcome to Wees-kan-san – Ojibwa for "gathering of the waters." Each year about 29 trillion gallons of water fall as rain or snow on Wisconsin's 36 million acres. Plants and animals consume some, some is returned to the atmosphere by evaporation or transpiration by plants, and some flows into rivers, lakes and streams. The rest becomes groundwater by seeping through the soil and into groundwater aquifers.

If you could somehow pour all the water below ground on top, you'd need to trade in your ranch house for a houseboat: Wisconsin's bountiful groundwater could cover the whole state to a depth of 30 feet!

Wisconsin's bountiful groundwater resources provide many refreshing hours of recreation.

© Robert Queen
Wisconsin's bountiful groundwater resources provide many refreshing hours of recreation. © Robert Queen

Every day, Wisconsinites withdraw about 759 million gallons of this seemingly endless resource from private and municipal wells. Our wells seldom go dry because groundwater is replenished by rain or snow at the rate of six to 10 inches per year.

So why be concerned about groundwater? There'll always be pure, clean groundwater for drinking and food processing, for livestock and paper production, for beer-making, car-washing, two showers a day, ice cubes, soda, mineral water, swimming pools and birdbaths, right?

Read on.

The quality and quantity of groundwater varies
from place to place

In Wisconsin, there's a difference in groundwater abundance from west to east and areas in between. The difference is caused mostly by geology, as you'll discover later in this publication. Here's an example to tide you over: Cities and towns in the north central and northeastern third of Wisconsin receive the most precipitation in the state, but they are underlain by crystalline bedrock, a type of rock formation notorious for yielding only small quantities of water. Even though there may be plenty of "precip," finding enough groundwater to supply municipalities in these regions can be difficult.

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.

At last estimate, there were about 750,000 private wells operating in the state. In some areas water moves through aquifers very slowly, but private wells can still produce enough water for residential use. You can drill a hole just about anywhere in Wisconsin and find a dependable water supply.

The supply may be dependable, but that doesn't mean it's drinkable. Groundwater can be contaminated in a number of ways – you'll read about them here. And you'll find out how you can take action at home to protect Wisconsin's buried treasure.

On the home front

"When the well's dry, we know the worth of water."
Benjamin Franklin, 1746

About three-fourths of Wisconsin's residents draw nearly 256 million gallons of groundwater daily at home to slake thirsts, scrub pots, boil spaghetti, rinse hair, soak socks and fill balloons. Per person, that's 63 gallons of groundwater per day.

How do you use Wisconsin's ample buried treasure?

Chart of water use © Moonlit Ink

Sixty-three gallons of groundwater per person per day may not seem like much, but there are hidden costs for excessive water use. Your community may have to install new wells or water and sewer pipes to accommodate increasing demand. Pumping more water requires more energy, which costs more money. Treating used water referred to as "wastewater" to stringent standards of purity strains every budget, private or municipal. You can take a real bath on your property taxes when the bill for new sewers arrives!

The less water you use, the fewer new water-related facilities you or your community will need to build and the longer good, pure groundwater will remain affordable. Follow this link for tips on water conservation.

Thirsty cities

It's used to fight fires, clean streets, fill the local pool, sprinkle golf courses and parks, drench dry boulevard trees, supply commercial customers and satisfy the needs of thirsty residents at home or at bubblers (drinking fountains, to non-Wisconsinites) around town. Ninety-seven percent of Wisconsin's cities and villages count on groundwater to provide basic water-related services often taken for granted.

Cities of all sizes draw refreshment from Wisconsin's groundwater aquifers.

© Robert Queen
Cities of all sizes draw refreshment from Wisconsin's groundwater aquifers. © Robert Queen

Wisconsin's municipal groundwater tab: A cool 314 million gallons per day. The top counties and main users: Dane County (Madison) 47 million gallons per day; La Crosse County (La Crosse), 17 million gallons per day; Rock County (Janesville and Beloit), 21 million gallons per day.

Average daily cost to a family of four in 1999: Less than 75 cents.

A fluid economy

Water is vital to the health of Wisconsin's economy. It's part of countless manufacturing processes, from metal fabrication to paper production to leather tanning. When water purity isn't critical to the final product, companies located near larger bodies of water have the option of using surface water. But some of our most important industries – fruit and vegetable processing, cheese-making, dairy farming, meat processing and brewing – need pure, clean groundwater to make the goods for which Wisconsin is famous.

The big operators aren't the only ones who need this valuable resource. Consider your local laundromat and car wash, the soft-drink bottlers, restaurants, health clubs, hairdressers...scores of the services and products we use daily depend on groundwater.

Fast food soaks it up: It takes 1,400 gallons of water to produce a meal of a quarter-pound hamburger, fries and soda. And so do cars, fast or slow: To produce one gallon of gasoline, six gallons of water are needed.

Commercial and industrial companies draw over 106 million gallons of groundwater each day from their own wells and use about 150 million gallons more provided by municipal water systems. Groundwater supplies nearly one-third of Wisconsin's business and industrial water needs – an important partner in Wisconsin's economic stability and future.

Wet and wild

2,444 trout streams
5,002 warm-water streams
15,057 inland lakes
5,33 1,392 acres of wetlands

These figures add up to a $7.7 billion boost to Wisconsin's economy, provided by thousands of residents and residents and tourists who visit the state each year to enjoy, among other things, our fabulous water resources. What they don't see is our most fabulous water resource of all: Groundwater.

Groundwater replenishes Wisconsin's lakes and streams.

© T/Maker Company/Broderbund Software Inc.
Groundwater replenishes Wisconsin's lakes and streams. © T/Maker Company/Broderbund Software Inc.

After seeping through the soil and rock, groundwater discharges in low places where the water table meets the land surface – streams, lakes and wetlands. That favorite fishing hole or secret pond, the expanse of cattails perfect for observing herons and singing along with the frogs, those wild rapids waiting to devour the raft or roll the kayak – they're replenished by groundwater.


Take a short test: A dairy cow producing 100 pounds of milk daily slurps 45 gallons of water each day to wet her whistle. There are roughly 1,369,000 dairy cows in the state. How much water will they drink in a year?

If you said 22,485,825,000 gallons, you pass. For extra credit, how much of that water was groundwater? Ninety-six percent? Good guess!

Wisconsin's dairy and cattle farms use about 78 million gallons of groundwater a day to water stock, maintain a high level of sanitation in the milkhouse and provide all-around cleanliness on the farm. Dairy farmers know that bringing a quality product to market means starting with quality materials – wholesome, nutritious feed and pure, clean water.

The demand for groundwater on the farm continues to rise as increasing numbers of farmers install irrigation systems to make the risky business of farming more certain. In 1969, an estimated 105,526 acres of Wisconsin farmland were irrigated; by 1998, that figure more than tripled to 341,813 acres.

Irrigating with groundwater brings a measure of control to farming, which has always been a risky business.

© Tom Riewe
Irrigating with groundwater brings a measure of control to farming, which has always been a risky business. © Tom Riewe

Irrigation equipment withdraws about 167 million gallons per day during the growing season, almost all of it groundwater.

Much of Wisconsin's irrigated acreage is in the relatively flat 10-county Central Sands area, where the potato is king. The tuber grows well in the sandy, loose soil, which needs less plowing and seedbed preparation than heavier soils and makes for an easy harvest. Water quickly seeps into this permeable soil and drains away almost as fast, allowing the plant roots to breathe and preventing rot. But the sandy soil doesn't hold water well, so irrigation is almost essential to ensure a good crop.

While irrigation has helped formerly marginal lands turn a profit, there is a cost: Excessive irrigation may leach nutrients, fertilizers and pesticides into groundwater.