An Ounce of Prevention
A new $10 million program aims to address contaminated wells through ARPA funding.
By Julian Emerson Wisconsin Farmers Union Communications Specialist
CHIPPEWA FALLS – Tests show one of every four privately owned wells in Portage County is contaminated with nitrates or other harmful pollutants, as the central Wisconsin county is among a growing number of rural regions in the state with tainted groundwater.
However, no county residents impacted by groundwater pollution have received funding in recent years through the state’s Well Compensation Grant Program to treat wells that supply drinking water, or drill new ones, a state lawmaker who represents the Portage County area said Tuesday.
“To the best of my knowledge, none of my constituents has qualified for funding through that program, despite there being a significant need for it,” state Rep. Katrina Shankland (D-Stevens Point) said Tuesday. “Too many people are seeking help on this issue without receiving the help they need from the state.”
Shankland made her comments during an Aug. 16 stop at the Jacob Leinenkugel Brewing Company in Chippewa Falls with Gov. Tony Evers, state Department of Natural Resources Secretary Preston Cole, and others to announce a new $10 million grant program to support the replacement, reconstruction, treatment, or abandonment of contaminated private wells. The appearance in Chippewa Falls was one of several in the state to tout the grant program.
The program, based on the state’s Well Compensation Grant Program, will expand eligibility beyond that program’s current restrictions to allow more people with contaminated wells to access dollars to address pollution. The effort is expected to address an additional 1,036 tainted wells.
Evers, who has made clean water a focus of his work as governor since being elected in November 2018, said failed previous efforts to convince the state Legislature to make clean water a priority necessitated using $10 million in American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds from the federal government to address cleanup of contaminated wells.
Evers proposed spending $2 million in additional funding for that purpose as part of his proposed 2021-23 state budget, as well as lifting restrictions on who qualifies to receive that money and boosting pollution standards. Republicans voted to include that money as part of the approved budget, an action they said they took to address contaminated wells. However, they left in place long-time restrictions, resulting in very few of those dollars being used to remediate private wells, according to the DNR.
The action “did not go nearly far enough,” Evers said, to address the need to ensure clean drinking water for Wisconsin’s rural residents. He said allocating the $10 million without legislative approval is necessary given the repeated stonewalling of the issue.
With available funding from the federal government, “fighting this out in the Legislature doesn’t make sense to me,” Evers said. “Clean water is not a luxury. It’s a human right.”
The grant program increases the family income cap to be eligible from $65,000 to $100,000 and eliminates a provision that reduces grant amounts for people whose annual income exceeds $45,000. The program also expands eligible applicants to include churches, daycare centers, and small, rural businesses. It also bases income eligibility on an individual instead of family income, making more people able to qualify.
In addition, the new grant program eliminates the requirement that a nitrate-contaminated well is eligible for a grant only if it is used to water livestock. The qualifying nitrate and arsenic levels to qualify for funding are reduced to comply with state public health standards, and any source of bacterial contamination that presents a human health risk qualifies for cleanup, not only fecal bacteria caused by livestock as was the case previously.
The maximum grant any one applicant can receive is $16,000.
Portage County is far from alone among Wisconsin’s rural locations dealing with contaminated water, Cole said. With 800,000 private wells across the state serving about 40% of the state’s households, private well contamination is too important of an issue not to address more fully, he said.
“There are far too many people across the state who have problems with their water,” Cole said. “I’m excited for what this (grant program) proposes to do for folks in rural Wisconsin.”
According to Wisconsin Groundwater Coordinating Council 2021 figures, nitrate was the most widespread groundwater contaminant, with about 10% of private wells and more than 200 public water supply systems above state and federal standards for nitrate. Exposure to nitrates has been linked to birth defects, and a condition in infants called methemoglobinemia, or “blue baby syndrome,” which results in low blood oxygen levels and, in serious cases, death.
In addition, about 17% of private water wells tested statewide were positive for coliform bacteria, with 3% of those wells testing positive for E. coli, an indicator of pathogens that can cause serious health impacts. Tests also showed high arsenic levels in groundwater in northeast and parts of southeast Wisconsin. Arsenic exposure over time can prompt skin damage, nervous system problems and increased cancer risks, among other symptoms.
Jennifer Giegerich, government affairs director for Wisconsin Conservation Voters, said the grant program will provide much-needed funding to help the state’s rural residents address water concerns. Efforts to address drinking water pollution in recent times have focused largely on PFAS in municipal water supplies, but people in rural areas need help too, she said. “We can’t just keep kicking the can down the road on this issue in our rural part of the state,” Giegerich said. “It leaves people in these rural areas so vulnerable.” The state’s water policy in rural regions often functions as if those areas are still populated by many small family farms, she said, and not the increasingly large, concentrated farms that sometimes pose greater pollution concerns.
“Our ways of dealing with rural water problems have not caught up with how we live on the land,” Giegerich said.
Recognizing the need for farmers to be a part of the growing conversation around water quality, the grassroots Wisconsin Farmers Union membership has voted to support new legislation and policy, including the development of adaptive management, locally-driven tools, as well as state-wide mechanisms to protect the quantity and quality of groundwater, equitably available for all interests, including water necessary to support healthy ecosystems.
Midwest Environmental Advocates staff has worked for years with communities adversely impacted by water pollution. On Tuesday the organization praised Evers’ announcement of funding to clean polluted wells, saying doing so will help ensure clean drinking water for more state residents. Preventing future pollution should receive increased focus as cleaning polluted water is costly in terms of dollars and health impacts, said Peg Sheaffer, MEA communications director. “While today's announcement is a significant step in the right direction, the old saying that "an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure" reminds us that preventing pollution at its source is the surest and most cost-effective way to protect public health and the water resources we depend on," she said.
The application process to apply for the program will be ready this fall, Cole said, and the DNR plans to hire additional staff to disburse the funding as quickly as possible. To learn more about the grant program, visit the DNR website here.
Emerson lives in the Chippewa Valley and is the Communications Specialist for Wisconsin Farmers Union. This is part of an ongoing series of articles focused on rural infrastructure investment in the state that are being produced through WFU's Rural Voices project. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.