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Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

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April 2006

How to protect the groundwater you drink and use

It's your turn.

Natasha Kassulke and Laura Chern

Examine your own habits
Conservation is wise use
Waste minimization
Take care of your onsite sewage system
Properly locate and construct wells
What else can you do?
Better Homes and Groundwater: A Homeowner's Guide

You've read about what government and industry are doing to guard groundwater. Now, here's what you can do to help.


Examine your own habits

Everyday activities 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.

Common sense goes a long way toward keeping Wisconsin's groundwater clean and plentiful. Here are some ways to cut back on water use and protect groundwater:

Conservation is wise use

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 six 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.

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. New water saving shower heads come with a button to shut off the flow without changing the mix of hot and cold water. 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 shaving or brushing 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. And scrape dishes into a compost bucket rather than rinse before loading the dishwasher.

Laundry: Always set the fill level to match the size load you are washing. Remember: Full loads save water because fewer loads are necessary. Front-loading washers use less detergent, electricity and water.

Lawn care: A rain barrel is a great way to save on water and it's not chlorinated, fluoridated or loaded with dissolved salt so it's better for your grass and plants. Consider reducing the size of your lawn by planting trees, shrubs and ground covers. Rain gardens are attractive, low maintenance, and they reduce runoff to lakes and streams.

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 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 an onsite sewage 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 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 nontoxic and biodegradable soaps and household cleansers. Or try environmentally friendly alternatives: Baking soda on a damp cloth to scrub sinks, appliances and toilet bowls; a mixture of white vinegar and water for cleaning ceramic tile, doors, windows and other glass surfaces; pure soap flakes and borax for washing clothes.

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Teach children early to build lifelong habits to protect resources.

© Dave Johnson

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 onsite sewage system. Compost your kitchen waste and use it to mulch yard plants and hold moisture in the soil.

For more ideas, look for the pamphlet "Better Homes and Groundwater" (publication number DG-070-2004) at: Groundwater and select "publications."

Take care of your onsite sewage system

Even properly sited, permitted, constructed and maintained onsite sewage systems can pollute groundwater, especially if the soil is highly permeable or the water table is close to the surface. You can keep your system in good working order by following these five 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 an onsite sewage system. Once released in the absorption field, these toxic products can leach into groundwater.

2. 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.

3. Have your onsite sewage system inspected once a year. A licensed septage hauler 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 sewage 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.

4. Keep it clean! There are no known chemicals, yeasts, bacterial preparations, enzymes or other additives for sewage tanks that will eliminate the need for periodic cleaning.

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

Properly locate and construct wells

Wells can be a safe, dependable source of water if sited wisely and built correctly. Here are six 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 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? What is its Wisconsin Unique Well Number?

2. 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?

3. 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 sewage 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 contamination sources. Wells should always be located up the groundwater gradient and as far from these potential sources of contamination as possible.

4. 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 state well code.

DNR maintains an online list of licensed well drillers and pump installers at Pumps Installers and Well Drillers by County.

Be cautious of very low bids that appear, in comparison to others, to have low per bag grout cost or no grout listed. Make sure the successful bidder knows that notification is required as part of the contract to drill the well and ask to be notified before grouting and be onsite when the well is grouted. As the grouting is occurring, watch to ensure the cement is pumped into the space between the casing and the drillhole, with the grout filled from the bottom of the casing.

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. This is important information to have if your well is ever contaminated. Reports collected over time in an area 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.

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

6. How do I fill in an old unused well? Fill and seal unused wells with concrete or bentonite, a type of clay. Licensed well drillers or pump installers can help you close off the old well to prevent groundwater pollution. For a copy of the pamphlet "Well Abandonment" (publication number DG-016-2001) go to Groundwater and select "Publications."

What else can you do?

Report illegal or abandoned waste sites or incidents of improper waste disposal. Call (800) 943-0003.

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.

Better Homes and Groundwater: A Homeowner's Guide

To request a copy of "Better Homes and Groundwater: A Homeowner's Guide," a booklet which provides groundwater friendly techniques for use at home and work, visit Groundwater and select "publications" or call 608-266-6669 and ask for publication number PUB-DG-070-2004.

Visit the Department of Natural Resources for more information about drinking and groundwater protection, choose "drinking and groundwater" from the drop-down program menu. Also visit UW-Extension Learning Store and click on "water quality" under the natural resources drop-down menu.