Manure has been blamed for much of the bacteria and viruses that pollute Wisconsin drinking water, but contamination from human waste is a problem, too.
Failing septic systems, leaking public sewer pipes and landspreading of septic waste can introduce dangerous pathogens into both rural and urban water systems.
In June 2007, 229 people were sickened by a norovirus in Door County while eating at a restaurant. Seven were hospitalized as a result of the pathogen, which is known for spreading illness on cruise ships. The source: a leaky septic system.
In 2012, a microbiologist published research that linked widespread gastrointestinal illnesses in 14 Wisconsin communities to viruses in the public water systems. Further research showed the contaminants were likely coming from leaking municipal sewage lines.
That same year, the Wisconsin State Journal reported that top Department of Natural Resources officials went easy on a political supporter of Republicans, including Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch, after the donor was caught violating septic waste spreading rules on fields near 40 drinking water wells, potentially exposing residents to nitrate, which can cause “blue baby syndrome,” and illness-causing pathogens.
In 1993, Wisconsin experienced the most deadly waterborne disease outbreak in U.S. history. One hundred people died and 403,000 became sick in Milwaukee when cryptosporidium contaminated the city’s drinking water. Lab tests confirmed the parasite had come from human waste.
Some experts say the state’s septic regulations and well standards are not adequate to protect public health in areas of Wisconsin with fractured bedrock, such as Door County.
In addition, municipal water systems in Wisconsin are not required to test for or treat water to kill viruses because the Legislature in 2011 rescinded a rule that would have mandated such action. And a study by a retired hydrogeologist has found that the state sometimes fails to enforce regulations that ban spreading untreated septic waste on fields vulnerable to groundwater pollution.
Septic systems are the main line of defense against water contamination from human waste in rural areas. The potentially lethal waterborne disease outbreak at a new restaurant in Door County in June 2007 illustrates the weakness of existing regulation, especially in areas with fractured bedrock.
In a 2011 paper in the journal Ground Water, a team of Wisconsin scientists concluded that the cracked bedrock under the restaurant, which is common in eastern Wisconsin, allowed waste from a broken septic system to move rapidly into the restaurant’s drinking water well.
Most residents, the researchers wrote, assume that waste from septic systems is biodegraded by soil on the way down to the groundwater and then safely diluted. But that is not always true.
Experts: Stricter rules needed
The researchers recommended that the state should reconsider allowing conventional septic systems to be built above fractured limestone aquifers, especially those serving facilities such as restaurants that generate a lot of wastewater.
John Teichtler, Door County’s sanitarian, said recent surveys show that about one-third of 6,450 septic systems inspected in his county were classified as failing to work. Sampling results in Door County, according to the University of Wisconsin-Extension, show that at least one-third of the private wells contain bacteria from animal or human waste.
Ken Bradbury, director of the Wisconsin Geological and Natural History Survey and one of the authors of the Ground Water paper, said he believes the state’s septic laws must be updated to account for the susceptibility of areas such as Door County.
“There is still the perception that just because there is a septic system that meets code, everything is fine,” Bradbury said. “Well, everything is not fine.”
In its 2015 report to the Legislature, the Wisconsin Groundwater Coordinating Council, a multi-agency panel that advises state government on drinking water issues, also issued a stern call for tougher rules for septic systems and well construction in geology marked by fractured bedrock. Current requirements in these areas, the report said, “are inadequate to protect public health and the environment.”
Despite the dangers of contamination from septic systems, Gov. Scott Walker last year proposed eliminating the Wisconsin Fund, which provides money for low-income families to replace failing systems. The fund provided $2.2 million to 500 low-income property owners in 2014-15.
In the final budget, the Legislature partially restored the fund but slashed it to $1.6 million this year and $840,000 in 2016-17 — a move criticized by John Hausbeck, who oversees Dane County’s septic program.
“There are homeowners everywhere in the state that do not have the money to replace a septic system,” Hausbeck said. “So they limp along until they end up with water contamination.”
Landspreading under fire
Enforcement of state laws regulating landspreading of septic waste on farm fields also has come under criticism.
In 2015, a citizen watchdog group called the Dunn County Groundwater Guardian Community found 150 sites on which the state DNR allows spreading of septic waste that were below or near the minimum standard for proper soil percolation, or the rate at which water and contaminants move through the soil. Under state law, fields with soil percolation rates greater than 6 inches per hour cannot be used for landspreading.
Neil Koch, a retired hydrologist who organized the citizen group and developed the map of percolation rates, found that 150 of the 400 sites used for spreading septic waste in Dunn County had rates of 5 to 20 inches per hour.
In a March letter to Koch, Susan Sylvester, director of the DNR’s Water Quality Bureau, acknowledged that the sites he identified did not meet minimal requirements but said reduced application rates were approved because of a low threat to drinking water. Sylvester said the addition of lime and exposure to sunlight and heat further cut the risk.
Sylvester added, however, that the agency is reevaluating septage and other landspreading sites throughout Wisconsin.
Viruses in water also cause illness
Numerous water experts also say the state is failing to protect Wisconsin residents from human and animal viruses in municipal drinking water supplies — some of it tied to leaky municipal sewer systems. Neither federal nor state rules require municipalities to disinfect drinking water drawn from groundwater, which supplies about two-thirds of the state’s potable water, nor are municipalities required to test for viruses.
Viruses are a relative newcomer to the list of pathogens known to endanger drinking water. But the science behind their presence — and their impact on the health of thousands — is already well-documented.
Researcher and microbiologist Mark Borchardt found in 2004 that 50 percent of water samples collected from four La Crosse municipal wells tested positive for disease-causing viruses.
During 2006 and 2007, Borchardt looked at 14 Wisconsin communities that did not disinfect their municipal water. Tests of tap water found nearly one-quarter of the samples had illness-causing viruses. A survey of 621 households found 1,843 cases of acute gastrointestinal illness during the study period.
Borchardt, who was working for Marshfield Clinic at the time, attributed 6 to 22 percent of the cases to contaminated drinking water; up to 63 percent of the acute gastrointestinal illnesses among children ages 5 or below were attributed to the tainted water.
Subsequent studies showed the source to be “cracked and leaky” municipal sewer pipes.
That research illustrated the crucial link between maintenance of infrastructure and water quality. The American Society of Civil Engineers estimated in 2013 that it would cost Wisconsin $7.1 billion to adequately maintain and upgrade drinking water systems over the next 20 years, most of it — $6.4 billion — for wastewater upgrades.
One way to ensure the safety of water is to disinfect it. But in 2011, the Republican-controlled Legislature blocked an effort to require disinfection on a largely party-line vote. As of February, 56 communities in Wisconsin serving nearly 65,000 people did not treat their water for viruses, according to a report published by Wisconsin Public Radio citing DNR figures.
Todd Ambs, former head of the DNR’s Water Division who now runs a nonprofit dedicated to restoring the health of the Great Lakes, called it “the worst piece of legislation that has gone through the Legislature.”
This report was produced as part of journalism classes participating in The Confluence, a collaborative project involving the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism and University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Journalism and Mass Communication. The nonprofit Center (www.WisconsinWatch.org) collaborates with Wisconsin Public Radio, Wisconsin Public Television, other news media and the UW-Madison School of Journalism and Mass Communication. All works created, published, posted or disseminated by the Center do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of UW-Madison or any of its affiliates.