Shankland, Barnes introduce clean water bill in Stevens Point

By Michael Leischner, WSAU

STEVENS POINT, WI (WSAU) -- State Representative Katrina Shankland of Stevens Point announced her support for a bill aimed at helping rural residents deal with private well water contaminated with nitrates.

Shankland says the problem stretches all across Wisconsin. "If you look at Iowa, Grant, and Lafayette Counties 42% of wells test positive for nitrates. In the central sands, we have 1 in 4 in Portage County testing positive. The Town of Armenia, Town of Port Edwards 42 % test positive. These wells have undrinkable water."

She called the situation a public health crisis that she's been working on since her first days in the Assembly. With new leadership in the Governor's office, she said now feels like a good time to bring the proposal forward. "We are finally getting the traction and attention."

Shankland and Lieutenant Governor Mandala Barnes made the announcement Monday at the University of Wisconsin - Stevens Point along with Portage County residents Karen and Tim Hannen, whos contaminated well has them buying cases of water for drinking and cooking.

The couple has been testing their well water monthly for nearly 4 years and has yet to receive a safe reading for the nitrates. They were told the best solution would be to move their well to a different location, which can cost up to $10,000. So instead, they continued to buy bottled water in hopes that the problem would correct itself.

The bill would boost the Well Compensation Grant Program to $1 million annually. Families making less than $100,000 would then be eligible for up to $12,000 to help with testing and other costs associated with moving their wells. Those making between $65,000 and 100,000 would see reduced grant awards.

Priority would be given to those with water testing at nitrate levels above 40 mg/L. Second priority would go to anyone with wells testing above 30 mg/L, third priority would go to anyone above 25 mg/L, and final priority would be anyone at 20 mg/L. The bill also provides funding for reverse osmosis systems for anyone with water testing at between 20 and 25 mg/L.

Shankland says any expecting mothers would put their babies at risk for blue baby syndrome by consuming water with those levels of nitrates. Additionally, anyone drinking the water would be at risk for various head, neck, or throat cancers. Those high levels of nitrates could also be an indicator of pesticides in the water, which poses other health risks of its own. "It's definitely not safe to drink well water that tests above 10 mg/L of nitrate, and that's why we need to get access to clean drinking water."

The bill also provides money for well testing in areas that are known to have high levels of nitrates. According to the Hannen's, those test can cost up to $50 a month.

The bill was formally introduced on Monday so Shankland doesn't have an exact timeline for its path to the Governor's desk. After it was given a formal number and assigned to a committee, the next step is public hearings which she is encouraging residents impacted by dirty wells to attend.

Shankland adds the bill does have some bipartisan support.