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WUWM's Susan Bence reports on Wisconsin environmental issues.

How A Growing Washington County Community Is Trying To Ensure Its Water Supply Lasts

Susan Bence
Richfield resident Jim Jankowski (center) was among the first Richfield residents to sign up for the community's groundwater study carried out by hydrogeologist Doug Cherkauer.

An estimated 1.7 million Wisconsinites rely on private wells for water. That includes the residents of Richfield, which is located northwest of Milwaukee in rural Washington County.

Richfield is trying to balance development with ensuring there is enough well water for all.

When Doug Cherkauer and his family moved to the 36-square-mile community in 1996, its population was 9,600. Almost immediately Cherkauer started monitoring the levels of his family’s well, something he’s expert at — he's a hydrogeologist and now a UW-Milwaukee emeritus professor.

His well was doing just fine, but Cherkauer was certain more people would be drawn to Richfield. Adding more and more private wells could jeopardize the resource for everyone.

“Even in water-rich Wisconsin, you can overuse a water resource. Groundwater gets over-utilized more than surface water does because you can’t see it, so you can’t see the problem developing,” Cherkauer says.

Credit Wellntel
This map shows groundwater-level change during Spring 2019 in the village of Richfield.

He started urging Richfield’s town board to test more wells. It took him six years to convince them, he says.

The Jankowski’s – who live at Richfield’s southwest corner — were among the first to sign up for Cherkauer’s groundwater study. Jim Jankowski says he and his wife were new to the community and to private well ownership.

“I didn’t know much about wells. I didn’t know about septic systems and that stuff. It was a chance to monitor the water levels,” he says.

Jankowski has come to realize how unique and precious Richfield’s underground water resource is.

Credit Susan Bence
Marty Butorac says he and his neighbors feared this large quarry just north of Richfield might impact their wells, but ongoing monitoring has appeased their concern.

Fellow well study participant Marty Butorac lives at the northern edge of Richfield, at one of its highest points. He had been worrying about how a large sand and gravel operation might impact his well.

“It’s a gigantic quarry across the road. I thought they might suck out our water. We talked about it as a neighborhood, but monitoring is taking care of that worry,” Butorac says.

Over the last 15 years, Cherkauer painstakingly monitored more than 40 private wells scattered throughout Richfield. Six times a year he’d pop out to each well, stick a water-level measure tape down and check its levels.

Now, Richfield is transitioning from Cherkauer's hands on technique to state-of the-art acoustic technology developed by Milwaukee startup Wellntel. Cherkauer says it takes readings way more often — twice a day.

Credit Susan Bence
Wellntel technical and operations manager Jenny Ulbricht replaces a battery at one of the Richfield wells.

“It transmits the reading into the house where there’s a gateway. It’s then sent up to the cloud, and it comes back with a depth to water, so now we’re getting much better data,” Cherkauer says.

He says Richfield is in the unique position of being able to control its groundwater “just by happenstance of geology."

And thanks to good policy, says Richfield Village Administrator Jim Healy.

In 2004, the village passed an ordinance to protect its groundwater — the first such municipal plan in the Wisconsin. Healy says the monitoring program initiated by Cherkauer and being continued by Wellntel is integral to Richfield’s sustainable future.

“Being able to have quantifiable data in order to support your basis for controlling future land use ... so we don’t have some issues other communities have that they run low or run out of water entirely," he explains.

Today, Richfield’s population is hovering around 12,000. Healy says based on what the community has learned about its groundwater supply, the village can support up to 20,000 residents.

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Susan Bence entered broadcasting in an untraditional way. After years of avid public radio listening, Susan returned to school and earned a bachelor's degree in Journalism from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. She interned for WUWM News and worked with the Lake Effect team, before being hired full-time as a WUWM News reporter / producer.
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