Groundwater Coordinating Council recommends legislature address PFAS, nitrate

By Emma Grenzebach, Daily Cardinal

The Groundwater Coordinating Council (GCC) of the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources released their annual report on Sept. 1, containing recommendations for the state legislature. The report’s priority recommendations include protecting groundwater from nitrate, addressing public health and environmental concerns regarding PFAS and evaluating groundwater for other pathogens.  

The GCC’s report paid increased attention to PFAS, which have been detected in municipal and private drinking water sources throughout the state. PFAS are a group of synthetic, potentially harmful chemicals used in household products and industrial processes.

According to the GCC’s recommendations, PFAS exposure “may affect childhood development, decrease female fertility, increase the risk of high blood pressure in pregnant women, increase cholesterol levels, increase the risk of thyroid disease and decrease antibody response to vaccines.”

“It’s been in there in the past as part of emerging contaminants…The feeling was PFAS have definitely emerged. They are an issue,” Bruce Reinecke, groundwater section leader for the DNR, told the Wisconsin State Journal.

The surfacing of PFAS is not the only concern in this year’s report. The GCC also paid close attention to nitrate, which remains the state’s most common water contaminant.

Rep. Katrina Shankland, D-Stevens Point, is pushing the legislature to listen to the GCC’s recommendations and give them more resources. Shankland was Vice-Chair of the Speaker’s Task Force on Water Quality, which probed water quality issues across Wisconsin from March 2019 to February 2020. 

After its initial investigation, the task force put forward and passed 10 bills in the Assembly with unanimous support. According to Shankland, these bills varied from “sweeping measures on private wells, septic systems and nitrate contamination to a bill for PFAS contamination and to invest in clean water at the UW-System in terms of research and workforce development.”

While these bills include many of the same goals as the GCC’s annual report, they have not yet been taken up by the Senate. 

“The State Senate hasn’t acted yet and that’s really frustrating because the Assembly passed these bills in February,” said Rep. Shankland when asked about the barriers to passing the bills. “Anytime you can get the State Assembly to pass a bill unanimously, that says a lot.”

Shankland said another obstacle is the COVID-19 pandemic. Shankland worries that the economic downturn could present funding issues, but she also said the legislature needs to invest in clean water now in order to prevent harm and save taxpayer money in the long run. 

Besides the health effects of PFAS, nitrate and other pathogens, Wisconsinites’ quality of life is also a concern. More than one third of the water used for commercial and industrial purposes comes from groundwater supplies, according to the DNR

The DNR said pesticides are also estimated to be present in about 40 percent of private drinking wells in Wisconsin. Regions with high agricultural activity have higher frequencies of detections of pesticides and nitrate.

“We need the Senate to do their jobs; they need to convene,” said Rep. Shankland. “Second of all, we need every member of the legislature, not just some of them, to understand that when someone can’t drink water from their tap it’s a public health issue, but it’s also a quality of life issue.”

Shankland also said that county-level organizations have signed unanimous or nearly unanimous resolutions calling for the Senate to convene. She also said constituents have been calling their Senators, asking them what they are doing to prompt the legislature to take action.