Avoid taking a swig of this water

SWIGG study shows lawmakers need to act on drinking water pollution

Creative Commons by geek_girl! licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

There is abundant evidence that Southwest Wisconsin has concerning levels of drinking water contamination.

In early August, researchers conducting the Southwest Wisconsin Groundwater & Geology (SWIGG) Study found that more than nine out of 10 wells in Grant, Iowa and Lafayette counties, that tested positive for coliform bacteria in prior sampling rounds, contained fecal matter from humans or livestock.

This news comes after initial rounds of testing found that 32% of the 840 wells tested in the three counties came back positive for coliform bacteria and/or high nitrates.

If your well tested over 10mg/l for nitrates—the limit of what is considered safe—I would absolutely stop drinking the water. And if your well tested positive for coliform bacteria, I would immediately take steps recommended by DNR to further investigate and correct the problem.

Due to the many health problems linked to nitrates and bacteria, it is simply not worth taking a risk with your health by drinking polluted water.

“Well” by Mamboman1 is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

High nitrate levels are linked to blue baby syndrome, a condition that prevents fetuses and infants from obtaining needed oxygen. Nitrate exposure can also cause life-threatening abnormalities to a fetus’ neural system. A growing body of evidence suggests that nitrates increase the risk of thyroid disease and colorectal cancer in adults.

Similarly, bacteria in drinking water can cause health problems. Pathogens like Salmonella, cryptosporidium and rotavirus—all of which were detected in the latest SWIGG study tests—can cause fever, vomiting, diarrhea and abdominal cramps. E. Coli, another dangerous pathogen, can even cause a type of kidney failure in children.

In this latest round of testing, researchers found most of the wells had fecal material from humans, meaning that septic tanks are contributing to the problem. Before pointing fingers at septic systems, though, it’s worth noting that 49% of contaminated wells had fecal matter from livestock, too.

Bacterial contamination isn’t an either/or problem. Clearly, leaking septic systems and pollution from manure spreading on farm fields both need to be addressed. 

Tackling agricultural runoff is especially important for reducing nitrate pollution. Simple math suggests that agriculture is the leading source of nitrate pollution: our estimates show that nitrogen leaching annually from corn fields in Southwest Wisconsin is 29 times higher than nitrogen leaching from septic systems in the same timeframe.

In his first months in office, Gov. Tony Evers has been a champion for clean drinking water. He declared 2019 the Year of Clean Drinking Water and has committed to solving the many drinking water challenges facing Wisconsin families. Just recently, for instance, he announced that he was directing state agencies to create new rules for how nitrates are applied to farm fields, an important step for protecting rural drinking water across the state.

It’s critical that other lawmakers join Evers in tackling private well water pollution in a big way. If lawmakers are serious about providing clean drinking water to Wisconsin residents who don’t have it, they will find ways to reduce bacterial pollution from both septic systems and agriculture, and they will take action to help farmers reduce polluted runoff from farm fields, the major source of nitrate pollution.

The Speaker’s Task Force on Water Quality has a great opportunity to put forth real solutions to drinking=water pollution in Southwest Wisconsin. The task force, convened by Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, has been holding public hearings around the state to understand the scope and scale of drinking water pollution, and it will release policy recommendations this fall. The results from the SWIGG study should be a catalyst for a comprehensive, all-of-the-above approach to protect drinking water and the public from harmful pollution.

People who have drinking water polluted with bacteria probably don’t care about where the nitrate and bacteria contamination is coming from. They just want the problem solved. Lawmakers must do what’s necessary to tackle the significant drinking water pollution plaguing rural Wisconsin families.

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