Drinking Water Threatened Across Wisconsin

Nov 9, 2015

Hundreds of thousands of Wisconsin residents might be drinking tainted water. That report comes from the Center for Investigative Journalism. It conducted a yearlong investigation.

Credit Katie Kowalsky / Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism

The findings indicate that private wells are more vulnerable than municipal water systems.

One-point-seven million Wisconsin residents rely on wells and private owners are responsible for their testing and maintenance.

Contaminants threatening Wisconsin's Drinking Water

According to the Center for Investigative Journalism:

  • Lead, dangerous especially to children’s brain development, is a threat in a projected 6,000 homes with lead pipes on municipal water systems, according to EPA estimates. And as many as 16,920 of the state’s 940,000 rural households on private wells also could be exposed to unhealthy lead levels, most likely from plumbing, according to a study by the Wisconsin Department of Health Services. Officials from the EPA and DNR have publicly acknowledged current federal regulations fail to protect against dangerous levels of lead in water.
  • Nitrate exceeds safe levels in the private wells of an estimated 94,000 Wisconsin households, according to state estimates. Despite these dangers, the law carves out a regulatory loophole so that private well owners with nitrate levels that could kill infants cannot qualify for financial assistance to get their wells replaced — unless the wells are used to water livestock.
  • Pesticides, some of which are linked with health issues ranging from cancer to reproductive problems, are present in one-third of the state’s private wells tested, according to the state’s 2014 Groundwater Coordinating Council report to the state Legislature. Tests for the herbicide atrazine,for example, showed 440 of 5,500 wells tested had levels above the EPA’s health enforcement standard.
  • A 2013 Department of Health Services study of 3,868 private wells statewide showed 2.4 percent of them exceeded the safe drinking water standards forarsenic of 10 parts per billion. Applied to all of the state’s private wells — a method endorsed by the study’s lead author — that percentage means residents in some 22,560 homes may be consuming unsafe levels of arsenic, which has been linked to cancer, diabetes, lower IQ and other illnesses.
  • That same study, published in the Journal of Environmental Health, found an indicator of possible disease-causing organisms such as E. colior viruses in 18 percent of the 3,868 private wells tested statewide between 2007 and 2010.
  • Wisconsin’s private wells have some of the highest levels in the United States of the heavy metal strontium, which is suspected of causing rickets and bone deformities in infants and children, according to the EPA. The naturally occurring contaminant, which is currently unregulated, was found by a University of Wisconsin-Green Bay researcher at unsafe levels in 73 out of 114, or 64 percent, of well water samples in Brown, Calumet and Outagamie counties, where the local geology has been linked to the presence of strontium.
  • Tests of municipal wells in 42 communities for radium, a naturally occurring contaminant linked to health problems including cancer, exceeded federal safety limits in 2006. As of June, two dozen communities continued to exceed the EPA’s maximum contaminant level for radium, which is found at higher levels the deeper communities drill down for water. Waukesha continues to find spikes in its water and has made a controversial, internationally watched bid to become the first community outside the Great Lakes watershed to draw its water from Lake Michigan.
  • Unsafe levels of molybdenum, a naturally occurring metal that can cause joint, gastrointestinal, liver and kidney problems, were found in 200 of 1,000 private wells tested in southeastern Wisconsin by the environmental group Clean Wisconsin in 2014. The organization found that the severity of contamination increased the closer wells were to sites with recycled coal ash from power plants. The DNR said the data are insufficient to link the contaminants to coal ash.

When it comes to municipal water systems, the federal Safe Drinking Water Act requires them to report on their water quality, every year.

Dee Hall says Milwaukee’s record is generally good. She’s managing editor or the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism and oversaw its drinking water review.

“Milwaukee has been a leader for a long time in expanding the range of contaminants that they test for. A lot of that stems back to the not too distant past when they had the big cryptosporidium scare,” Hall says.

Cryptosporidium is a microscopic parasite that unexpectedly entered Milwaukee’s water system in 1993. It sickened more than 400,000 people; approximately 100 of them – most with fragile immune systems, died.

The crisis prompted Milwaukee to move its water intake pipe farther out into Lake Michigan, away from polluted runoff. The water utility also added additional layers of testing and treatment to its protocol.

But, Hall adds, “Milwaukee is like every other older city with a lot of lead pipes. They follow the EPA’s testing protocols for how you gather the samples, and how many houses you sample, and that has been found by some researchers to actually finding the level of lead people are drinking,” she says.

Milwaukee does add a form of phosphate, in small amounts, to its system to inhibit lead pipes from corroding, according to Sandra McLellan. She’s a researcher with UWM’s School of Freshwater Sciences.

McLellan says she doesn’t worry about use of phosphate, but she has some fundamental concerns about Milwaukee’s fragile maze of underground conduits.

“We don’t have enough resources to keep our drinking water pipes and also our wastewater conveyance systems intact. And when you have leaking pipes, you can have leaking sewage into the ground which can intrude drinking water systems. You can get pathogen intrusion from the wastewater side into the drinking water side,” McLellan says.

And, McLellan says, the probability of breaches will rise with climate change.

“If we have warmer winters, more freeze thaw cycles, more extreme cold, some of those stresses can affect the distribution system. We may see more water main breaks, more issues with that,” she says. Issues such as contaminants entering the drinking water system.