Hundreds pack H.S. auditorium to learn about nitrate contaminated wells

By: Emily Davies, WSAW

NEKOOSA, Wis. (WSAW) -- The auditorium at Nekoosa High School was filled with people Monday night hoping to learn about the latest data and potential solutions from a panel of experts talking about contaminated water in the central sands area of Wisconsin.


The 10 panelists were limited to speaking for only five minutes to allow for discussion and questions at the end of the meeting that had a hard end-time of 8 o'clock, which left some people in attendance with unanswered questions.

The panelists included Ken Bradbury from the Geological Natural History Survey, Mark Borchardt from the USDA and USGS, Sarah Yang from the Wisconsin Department of Health Services, Yi Wang from University of Wisconsin-Madison Department of Agriculture, Nancy Eggleston from the Environmental Health Department for Wood, Adams, and Juneau counties, Andy Diercks from Coloma Farms, John Eron from Farmers of Mill Creek, and three members of the Speaker's Task Force on Water Quality, which include republican state Sen. Patrick Testin, republican Rep. Scott Krug, and democratic Rep. Katrina Shankland.

Over the course of the last two years, wells in Wood, Portage, Adams, Juneau, Waupaca and Waushara counties were studied. Pine Grove in Portage County took the top spot with nearly 46% of the homes in that area exceeding state and federal nitrate standards. Places like Armenia had levels 7 times the standard.

Keith Iverson from Armenia told 7 Investigates he has tested his water for the last 30 years, trying to find solutions himself, as his levels have never been in a safe range.

"I'm here asking them if they've got some magic pill we can drop down the well that will solve all of this," he said. "I want to solve something that I can make my pot of coffee in the morning and not concentrate the nitrates when I boil it."

He said he was encouraged to hear farmers say they are looking at ways they can be as efficient as possible with their nitrate output, along with legislators who said they will be rolling out a package of bills next week to start to fix this problem.

Several panelists said the solutions and the knowledge are already there to help solve this problem, however weather, some legal technicalities and the realities verses the farm technology goals make those solutions more difficult to obtain.

The organizer of the panel, Bill Leichtnam, is a Wood County board of supervisors member. He said he chose the Nekoosa High School auditorium because it can hold more than 400 people, and these meetings have been well attended in the past, leaving some people standing.

During the summer of 2018, 7 Investigates first told you about the problem of high nitrates in ground water in the central sands area, which falls in Wood, Adams, Juneau, and Portage counties.

The central sands area has very sandy soil, so nutrients can easily seep into the groundwater, which can affect the quality of homeowners’ private wells.

The high levels have caused people not to be able to drink, cook, brush teeth, etc. their well water because of the dangerous health consequences including cancer and blue baby syndrome.

Researchers have determined the cause is likely from area farms, specifically large farms. Over the past two years, more testing has been done.

"I've seen some of the data that the audience is going to hear this evening. It's more alarming than I thought, the amount, the percentage of rural wells that are contaminated with nitrates," Leichtnam said ahead of the meeting.