Nitrate in Wisconsin Water Widespread, Current Rules No Match For It

Nov 17, 2015

Born a month early in the spring of 1999, Case 8 had been thriving on formula. But at three weeks old, when her family ran out of bottled water and started using boiled water from the household well at the dairy farm where they lived, she got sick. She was just 4 pounds, 10 ounces, when her parents brought her to a Grant County emergency room. Cold, pale and “extremely blue,” she was rushed by helicopter to a regional intensive care unit.

Nearly all of her red blood cells had lost the ability to carry oxygen, according to medical records Wisconsin public health officials summarized in the Wisconsin Medical Journal.

Two days after she fell ill with methaemoglobinaemia, or “blue baby syndrome,” water tests turned up the most likely culprit — high levels of nitrate. After 17 days, she was released from the hospital. Generally, a baby can recover in one or two days once given clean water.

Credit Katie Kawolsky / Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism

According to state estimates, nitrate is at unsafe levels in an estimated 94,000 Wisconsin households. One in five wells in heavily agricultural areas is now too polluted with nitrate for safe drinking, according to data from the state Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection.

Public water systems also recorded 57 violations of health-based standards for nitrate in 2014. Those systems were required to post notices, provide bottled water, replace wells, install treatment or take other corrective actions to reduce nitrate. More than 120 of the 11,420 systems failed either to monitor or report nitrate levels.

“Nitrate that approaches and exceeds unsafe levels in drinking water is one of the top drinking water contaminants in Wisconsin, posing an acute risk to infants and women who are pregnant, a possible risk to the developing fetus during very early stages of pregnancy, and a chronic risk of serious disease in adults,” according to the 2015 Wisconsin Groundwater Coordinating Council report to the Legislature.

The multi-agency council also reported that nitrate — one of the most widespread groundwater contaminants in Wisconsin — is “increasing in extent and severity.”

Yet blue baby syndrome is rare. That is probably because private well owners have been warned for decades to test their water, especially if they have a baby.

But over the past four decades, the contamination has been worsening in extent and severity.

And new studies have suggested even the current health standard for nitrate may be too high.

Last year, the state Department of Health Services updated its health advice to warn women who may become pregnant to stay away from water with high nitrate levels, based on emerging research linking the chemical to birth defects. Some of those health effects, researchers have written, may be caused not by the nitrate itself but by contaminants, including pesticides that often occur with it.

Researchers also are studying other possible health effects from nitrate in drinking water, including several cancers, thyroid problems and diabetes.

Doug and Sherryl Jones show a monitoring well on their property in rural Spring Green.
Credit Bridgit Bowden / Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism

Among those with water contaminated by nitrate are Sherryl and Doug Jones of rural Spring Green.

About eight years ago, water from their private well tested at 20 milligrams of nitrate per liter of water — twice the health limit. Sherryl Jones said the couple initially switched to bottled water and, since 2012, they have been using a reverse osmosis system to remove nitrate at a cost of about $25 a month. Reverse osmosis removes nitrate and other contaminants by using high pressure to push water through a semipermeable membrane.

“We had children, we had babies in our house, we had a pregnant daughter, we had pregnant daughters-in-law. What was this (water) doing? There was no way we could let them drink this water,” Sherryl Jones recalled.

Jones said she urged neighbors to get their water tested, too. The result: Some of them had been drinking water with four times the health limit of nitrate. In fact, testing by the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point’s Center for Watershed Science and Education found 31 percent of the private well samples collected in the Spring Green area had nitrate levels above the health standard.

Sherryl Jones said the state Department of Natural Resources never warned them about high nitrate levels in the beautiful area along the Wisconsin River where they built their dream home. State officials have been studying dangerous nitrate levels private water wells in the Lower Wisconsin River Valley at least since the early 1990s.

“They've known about it. Now, what have they done?” she said. “They haven't even educated the residents of this area.”

Rules no match for nitrate

At least 90 percent of nitrate inputs into groundwater come from artificial fertilizers and manure from farming operations, according to the 2015 report of the groundwater council. Septic systems account for about 9 percent of the nitrate inputs to groundwater. Lawn care contributes another 1 percent.

Nitrate in drinking water systems is increasing, the council found, and “current management activities to limit nitrate pollution have questionable effectiveness.”

Nutrient management plans are the state’s main tool for addressing the problem. They help farmers apply nitrogen and phosphorus at the right rate to keep nutrients out of surface and groundwater.

“(But) nutrient management plans clearly don’t protect groundwater if we mean anything close to maintaining the drinking water standard,” said George Kraft, a professor of water resources at UW-Stevens Point who is the governor’s representative to the council.

Last year, the groundwater council made protecting groundwater from nitrate and other agricultural contaminants one of three top-priority recommendations for the state.

The DNR, which is responsible for protecting groundwater, declined to provide anyone for an interview with the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism about nitrate in Wisconsin’s drinking water. Former agency spokesman Bill Cosh also refused to answer questions about what strategy DNR was pursuing to reduce nitrate, directing a reporter instead to previously published reports.

But DNR drinking water chief Jill Jonas acknowledged at a 2014 scientific conference on nitrogen’s environmental impacts held in Madison that Wisconsin has “a worsening problem that we need to tackle.”

In October, 16 Wisconsin residents, including the Joneses of rural Spring Green, filed a petition with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency seeking to force the DNR to correct deficiencies in its enforcement of the federal Clean Water Act.

The petitioners allege the DNR has failed to adequately protect ground and surface waters that provide drinking water to the state. The agency has responded by saying it takes its responsibilities under the law seriously.

As bad as it is now, Wisconsin’s groundwater nitrate contamination overall is likely to increase long before it stabilizes, Kraft and other groundwater experts said, due to the lag time between when nitrogen is applied to the surface and when it reaches the water.

The EPA has estimated nitrate’s direct damage to drinking water supplies nationwide at $19 billion, with some of the greatest costs borne by Upper Midwest states including Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa, Illinois, Ohio, Michigan and Indiana.

Jonas told the scientific conference last year that the costs of testing and treatment to remove nitrate pollution are growing statewide, “and it certainly is unsustainable.”

Dairy’s role scrutinized

Kewaunee County residents whose wells have been polluted with nitrate and bacteria have pointed to large dairy farms, known as concentrated animal feeding operations, as the most likely culprits. They have filed a separate petition asking the EPA to provide them with emergency safe drinking water and to investigate the sources of the nitrate and other pollution. Many also want tighter regulation of the dairies to protect the area’s vulnerable karst topography, where aquifers lie underneath shallow bedrock filled with cracks and holes.

Manure from dairy operations is blamed in part for nitrate that pollutes the drinking water in some parts of Wisconsin.
Credit Kate Golden / Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism

In a case that all sides agree could set a national model, a federal judge in Washington state in May sided with environmental groups in ruling that several large Yakima dairies’ manure had polluted drinking water supplies with nitrate and posed an imminent threat to human health. The dairies were ordered to provide clean drinking water to hundreds of neighbors with contaminated wells.

Giant dairy farms have mushroomed as Wisconsin’s industry has consolidated. The Wisconsin Dairy Business Association, an industry group, has fought the notion that the large farms have tainted drinking water by citing the looser regulation of small farms and the presence of human, as well as animal, waste in wells.

The group acknowledges agriculture’s role in the overall problem — and potential solutions.

“If anything, these dairies will be a big part of any improvements going forward,” said the association’s representative John Holevoet, adding that such farms “have embraced regular soil testing and detailed nutrient management planning in a way that others have not,” and pointing to research and technologies to improve the efficiency of nitrogen use.

“The reality is, manure management has never been better or more sophisticated than it currently is. It will only get better,” Holevoet said.

Kevin Masarik, a groundwater education specialist at UW-Stevens Point’s Center for Watershed Science and Education, said some factors are beyond farmers’ control. Even farmers who are following best farming practices set out by federal or state agencies may pollute the groundwater, particularly in areas with geologically vulnerable aquifers such as northeastern Wisconsin’s karst areas or the Central Sands region.

“We don’t have a lot of tools in the toolbox to address nitrate in groundwater,” he said. “I don’t think we have fully realized what the extent of nitrate is throughout Wisconsin yet.”

The state agriculture department says nutrient management planning is one of the best ways to prevent excess nutrients from tainting the water. Wisconsin’s current standards are among the most stringent in the nation, agency spokeswoman Donna Gilson said, and revisions currently underway will require “substantially stronger restrictions” on spreading nutrients for certain soil types, in winter and near conduits to surface or groundwater.

But state agriculture officials’ view of these plans’ effectiveness in addressing nitrate is rosier than that of groundwater experts Kraft and Masarik. Masarik, who was involved in research examining the effectiveness of such nutrient management planning, said the strategy may still result in contaminated wells unless farmers rotate their crops.

Even revisions to the nutrient management standards are unlikely to dramatically improve water quality, Masarik said. The benefits of such plans “may have been oversold in some cases — or misunderstood in terms of what’s actually realistic,” he said.

The cost of solving a nitrate problem for a household can run from hundreds of dollars a year for bottled water or water treatment systems to thousands of dollars to drill a new well.

Petitioners Sherryl and Doug Jones feel the state DNR has left residents to fend for themselves when it comes to ensuring the quality of their water.

“We all are entitled to clean water, drinking water,” Doug Jones said. “There's no reason why with this day and age and all the science and technology that something can't be done to improve the situation because it just seems to be getting worse.”

Reporter Bridgit Bowden contributed to this report. Portions of the series were produced in collaboration with journalism classes participating in The Confluence, a project involving the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism and the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Journalism and Mass Communication. The nonprofit Center ( collaborates with Wisconsin Public Radio, Wisconsin Public Television, other news media and the journalism school. 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.