Clean Water: Is It Achievable In Wisconsin?

May 6, 2019

We all know water is fundamental to our lives, and to all livings things. But do you ever stop and think about the water you have access to, and if it is actually clean?

It depends on your perspective, says John Luczaj, head of UW-Green Bay’s geosciences program.

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“If you’re a fisheries person, you might think of surface water quality. If you live in a house where lead levels are elevated, you probably think of drinking water. I’m a geologist so I usually think of ground water quality,” Luczaj says.

No matter how you look at it, he says multiple factors influence water quality. Around the state soils vary — from sandy to clay. The depth of those soils differs, and so does the bedrock below. Luczaj says all of those variables affect how the ability to filter contaminants.

Another variable is how far down groundwater is and where it flows.

READ: Emerging Threats To Wisconsin's Water

Then factor in how humans live and work on those landscapes, Luczaj says. Take nitrate. It’s a natural chemical, but too much of it (in the form of manure and fertilizer) can seep into well water, making it dangerous to drink. Nitrate is one of the pollutants that contaminate wells.

“When you have shallow aquifers, like karst limestone aquifers, or if you have sandy aquifers like you find in central Wisconsin, a large proportion of private wells are above drinking water standards for nitrates,” Luczaj says.

Luczaj says northern Wisconsin has relatively few groundwater problems.

“That’s in part because of the geology, in part because of the land use and population differences. But all of those things factor together to change what’s put on the landscape and what can dissolve naturally out of rocks and sediment,” Luczaj says.

READ: Pollutants Are Abundant In Waterways Surrounding Milwaukee County

Every scientist weighing in on our clean water question says human activity impacts water. Growing populations and climate change intensify those threats.

Marquette University assistant professor Patrick McNamara is an environmental engineer. He considers Milwaukee’s drinking water clean and safe.

“I live in Milwaukee County. I can turn on my tap. I have 3-year-old and a 1.5-year-old — I give them water from the tap,” he says.

McNamara says Milwaukee has a well-managed water reuse system.

The primary clarifier at the Jones Island wastewater treatment facility.
Credit Patrick McNamara

“There’s conventional water treatment. Well, Milwaukee goes beyond conventional. Milwaukee draws from very deep in Lake Michigan. Then, they pretreat all of their water with ozone — that’s an advanced treatment process,” McNamara says.

At the other end of the process, the sewerage district treats wastewater on its path back to Lake Michigan. The whole system is monitored.  Researchers, including McNamara, are involved too.

“We have some research on drinking water pipes and what bacteria is in our pipes and how do the different corrosion inhibitors affect bacteria in the pipes,” McNamara adds, “And we study waste water because that’s your hotspot for all of the bacteria in the city. All of the antibiotics get flushed down so that’s essentially the stomach of the city of Milwaukee.”

READ: Marquette  Researcher Links Chemical Found In Soap To Antibiotic Resistance 

Concern is escalating around an ever-increasing number of chemicals popping up in water.

Milwaukee Riverkeeper is one of the groups that helps gather samples along Milwaukee's rivers. They are passed on to Todd Miller at his lab.
Credit Susan Bence

Researcher Todd Miller with UWM’s Zilber School of Public health is working with fellow scientists and citizen groups in a collaboration called CLEAR Milwaukee. Together, they're gathering samples along Milwaukee waterways and Lake Michigan. The samples are then brought to Miller's lab. 

READ: Thanksgiving Feast Lives On In Milwaukee's River

“We’re monitoring about 100 different chemicals. Most of them are pharmaceuticals like antibiotics but also personal care products, hygiene products, cosmetics and even recreational drugs,” Miller says. "One of the things we need to understand: that our wastewater treatment plants were never designed to handle this very complex mixture of pharmaceuticals.”

This graph shows the chemicals CLEAR Milwaukee's found most often in its samples. It's color-coded by the type of chemical.
Credit Clear Milwaukee

The chemical soup ends up in Lake Michigan. It’s a vast water body, so Miller says the chemicals do dilute.

“So, we’re not too worried about them getting into finished drinking water because of the robust treatment plant that we have. But we are trying to figure out how this very complex mixture of chemicals might affect the ecology of Lake Michigan," Miller adds, “for example fish species.”

Luczaj, McNamara and Miller are just three of the many scientists and researchers who we spoke to about clean water and whether it's achievable. A common theme ran through their perspectives: It’s going to take intense public engagement and sound policy to make sure water is safe for all of the life that depends on it.