Wisconsin to expand well replacement program to ensure access to clean water

By Laura Schulte, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

MADISON - A $10 million grant program announced Tuesday will help more than 1,000 Wisconsin households with contaminated wells pay the price of a replacement.

Gov. Tony Evers and Department of Natural Resources Secretary Preston Cole announced the funding, which will serve as an expansion to the existing Well Compensation Program, Tuesday morning in Oconto.

The funding is aimed at expanding access to clean water in Wisconsin, and in particular, the nearly 1 million people in the state who rely on private wells instead of public water systems. The investment is expected to help address contamination in 1,036 wells across the state.

“Whether it’s our kids in our schools, families cooking dinner, or our farmers who depend on conservation, every Wisconsinite deserves access to clean, safe water,” said Evers in a press release. “Unfortunately, too many families across our state know firsthand how it feels to turn on the tap and not be able to trust what comes out, and many have had to rely on plastic water bottles for drinking water."

The program will make funding more widely available for situations involving nitrate contamination, which has become a problem particularly in rural areas of Wisconsin near large factory farms or those near farms that routinely fertilize crops. It eliminates a previous requirement that only would allow funding to be accessed if the well was used as a water supply of livestock.

The thresholds for nitrate-contaminated wells will also be dropped from 40 parts per million, to 10 parts per million, in order to comply with the recommended health standards of the state.

Nitrate is the state’s most widespread contaminant of groundwater. According to the agency about 10%, or 80,000, of the state’s private wells fail to meet the state drinking water standard of 10 parts per million.

The contaminant mostly comes from manure or fertilizer but can also originate from septic systems and other sources, as well.

Studies suggest that drinking water with elevated levels of nitrate over a sustained period can cause birth defects, thyroid problems and colon cancer. Pregnant women and babies are the most vulnerable. The contaminant has been associated with a condition called blue baby syndrome, which reduces the amount of oxygen in a baby’s blood.

In addition to addressing nitrate, the funding will also:

  • Allow well replacement if any source of bacterial contamination is found that presents a risk to human health
  • Increase individual grant funding from $65,000 to $100,000
  • Eliminate a requirement for reduction of a grant amount if a claimant's income is over $45,000, and
  • Expand eligibility to non-community wells, including churches, daycare centers, rural restaurants and other small businesses.

The program will also address arsenic contamination, by reducing the standard from 50 parts per billion to 10 parts per billion. Arsenic, which is a naturally occurring contaminant, impacts the northeastern and southeastern parts of the state. Exposure to arsenic over time can cause skin damage, problems with the nervous system and an increased risk of cancer, according to the press release.

The funding is meant to fill a gap left when the Republican-controlled Legislature last year declined to include updates to the well compensation program in the biennial budget that had been recommended by Evers.

“Too many people have been searching for solutions to help them address their well contamination issues and coming up empty due to the unnecessarily prohibitive requirements of our state’s existing grant program," said Rep. Katrina Shankland, D- Stevens Point, in a release. "Our new program will have a transformational impact for communities like mine across Wisconsin, and it shows our governor’s and my understanding of the gravity and urgency of the problem and our willingness to address the issue when others in the Capitol would not.”

Applications for the expanded well compensation program will be available this fall.