Southwest Wisconsin groundwater study underway - Paycheck

Southwest Wisconsin groundwater study underway

Paycheckology's FAST Facts

  • Wisconsin groundwaters are contaminated!
  • Testing proves to be valuable tool in understanding problem
  • Changes in farming, waste management, and well water could lead to improvement

 Groundwater contamination is  a serious issue across Wisconsin. Thankfully, researchers are doing what they can to understand the complex issues related to contamination through the use of an in-depth study called.... Despite much study and investigation,  fractured bedrock underneath thin soil in the driftless region of the state continues to create trouble for many area residents and farmers. 

   Kriss Marion, Lafayette County Supervisor and farmer in Blanchardville, described the situation by saying,.“Four years ago we thought Kewaunee County had a problem but now we know there are water quality problems all over the state,” 

   Marion, who is running for state assembly, noticed  several years ago as Kewaunee County began researching their water contamination issues. She even invited Kewaunee County officials to southwestern Wisconsin to share a presentation on karst.

   She then took decisive action and  started a watershed protection group using funds from a grant program through the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade, and Consumer Protection. Group members tested water quality  for homeowners and successfully added test results to Wisconsin’s well viewer website.

   “We had the chance to work together and find ways to have conversations to figure out how widespread the well contamination problem was and then find ways to help,” she said.

   Marion’s opponent, Representative Todd Novak, who has served Assembly District 51 since 2014, is chairperson  of the Speaker’s Task Force on Water Quality. In this role, he works to find solutions to water issues. 

   “I represent this area and have learned a lot about water,” Novak said. “This is important to me and, because of the foundation the task force has laid, our state and its legislature can move forward with water quality.”

   Novak said there were some alarming contamination numbers in the initial round of testing. As a matter of facts, he’s particularly  interested to see how test results turn out in the future because he believes the key to addressing water quality issues is continued  testing and analysis.

   “Our goal is to have every county in the state do a study,” he said. “Data is important; data is our friend. We need it from all quadrants of the state.”

   Novak is working to find funding for Wisconsin counties to apply for water testing grants. He said he’s proud of the work the task force is doing and he’s also proud of farmers for stepping up to highlight the importance of clean water.

   “Clean water isn’t a Republican or Democratic issue; it’s a state of Wisconsin issue,” Novak said.

   A similar watershed protection group called Lafayette Ag Stewardship Alliance (LASA) was started in 2017. Jim Winn, the group’s president, continues to encourage his board of directors, members, area farmers, and residents to be involved in protecting Wisconsin waters by using environmentally-friendly farming practices.

   “It would be my hope that through this study, we will get a clear picture where problems are stemming from,” Winn said. “Hopefully that will make it a lot easier for us as farmers to help resolve the problems.”

   Josh and Gretchen Kamps, Belmont farmers and members of LASA, run 300 acres of pastureland and have a 250-head cow-calf beef operation. They’ve implemented practices such as cover crops, minimal tillage, stream crossings, perennial forage and a nutrient management plan. They continue to see improved soil quality with better water-holding capacity because of these techniques. The farm also has increased resilience in extreme weather events.

   “The stream banks are healing, so as they get a break, we see a lot less soil and more vegetation,” said Gretchen Kamps. “This is beneficial for our soil and our groundwater.”

   As LASA encourages involvement through cost-share programs and educational events, researchers continue to work on a groundwater analysis study. The southwest Wisconsin groundwater and geology study (SWIGG) is evaluating private well contamination, assessing well construction, and identifying the source(s) of contamination.

   “This study is not designed to fix this problem; rather it’s intended to understand the problem,” said Ken Bradbury, director and state geologist with Wisconsin Geological and Natural History Survey at UW-Madison Division of Extension.

   Bradbury is part of a research team working through the groundwater analysis. He said Grant, Iowa, and Lafayette counties initiated and paid for most of this study because citizens want to know what’s in their water. LASA also has contributed funds because the group is intent on using science to guide its activities. Scientists from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and U.S. Geological Survey are also part of the project team.

   “We have some context with this study,” Bradbury said. “Contamination here is a bit worse than the state average.”

   In the first round of random sampling, 301 private wells were tested; 539 in the second round. The first round of sampling revealed 42 percent of wells had some form of contamination.

   “This doesn’t mean people are always going to get sick from this water,” Bradbury said. “It affects different people in different ways, but we do know it’s above Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources drinking water standards and guidelines. So, we feel these wells are at risk.”

   Bradbury said the most crucial part of the issue assessment phase is to speciate the bacteria in the water. By doing this, he and his team can determine if the bacteria is coming from livestock, humans, or both.

   Earlier this year, data from the study emerged showing human feces continued to be a prominent source of contamination in some of the tested wells. Where and when waste treatment plants spread their waste as well as weather conditions play a role in the severity of the contamination during each round of testing.

   “This is a common point where people begin pointing fingers,” Bradbury said. “But as it turns out, there was some percentage of both animal and human bacteria and some pathogens in these samples.”

      The next step in the analysis process is to develop a database of what’s in the water samples and where that contamination originated. Researchers are now relating their sampling results to different land-use practices, such as feedlot and manure lagoon placement as well as where fields are in relationship to the wells, and to various well characteristics, such as the age and depth of each well. 

   “Wells can be 100 years old and not in good shape or simply not have a good design in the first place,” Bradbury said. “Wells might be easier to solve than land-use practices.”

   Other parts of the process include determining the geology and hydrogeology of the land and the depth to bedrock as well as how much and what type of soil is on top of the bedrock. Soil serves as nature’s natural water filter, he said. 

   The cost of repairing wells and implementing new farming practices can be expensive, but in some cases, there are less expensive options. Bradbury said it’s also important to think about the broader view of the issue when considering cost: somebody will pay those costs. However,  there are other non-monetary burdens  that homeowners, farmers, and society must bear. These include, but are not limited to,  acute  long-term health issues if the groundwater is contaminated and the problem isn’t resolved.

   “Farmers taking the initiative to step up and lead is really great and really important because that’s how problems like this will get solved,” he said. “Local people getting involved and thinking about farming practices and working together is the best, not regulations from Madison.”

   For more information, visit

Mary Hookham

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