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GCC Report to the Legislature

The GCC identifies its recommendations for future groundwater protection and management. These recommendations include top priorities of immediate concern and ongoing efforts that require continued support.

Priority recommendations

Set new and revised health-based groundwater standard recommendations.

Wisconsin has a long and proud history of groundwater protection. Wisconsin’s groundwater law adopted in 1983 is held up as one of the nation’s model environmental laws in part because of its robust, science-based process for protecting the quality of our groundwater and public health. For nearly 40 years, this law has guided the process that DHS and DNR follow, ensuring a scientifically rigorous review of available technical information and clarity on how recommended groundwater standards are selected. However, the DNR has not been allowed to make revisions or additions to groundwater standards for over 10 years. Since 2019, DHS has provided DNR with two sets of recommendations (Cycle 10 and Cycle 11) based on state regulatory program needs for 47 new or revised groundwater standards. These include standards for pesticides, per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), metals, volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and bacteria. However, in 2022 the Natural Resources Board (NRB) ended rulemaking before sending the rule package to the legislature which would have set standards for the 26 Cycle 10 recommendations.

Implement practices that protect groundwater from nitrate and other agricultural contaminants (microbial agents, pesticides and their degradates).

Nitrate that approaches and exceeds unsafe levels in drinking water is one of the top drinking water contaminants in Wisconsin, posing an acute risk to infants and women who are pregnant, a possible risk to the developing fetus during very early stages of pregnancy, and a chronic risk of serious disease in adults. In addition, pesticides are estimated to be present in approximately 40% of private drinking water wells in Wisconsin. Areas of the state with a higher intensity of agriculture generally have higher frequencies of detections of pesticides and nitrate. Agencies should develop and evaluate a strategy to promote practices that lead to efficient use of nitrogen and careful or reduced use of pesticides in order to protect drinking water sources.

Implementation of these practices should be supported with appropriate technical tools and incentives such as:

  • identifying sensitive areas of the state based on geology where elevated nitrate is present and making information available through an online mapping tool;
  • assessing soil type specific nitrogen crop application rates and cropping best management practices to further minimize nitrogen losses to groundwater and encourage their use, especially in highly sensitive areas of the state;
  • developing a broad outreach plan and educational materials for farmers and nutrient management planners, and agricultural industry stakeholders that identify and encourage the use of specific alternate cropping and nutrient management practices to minimize agricultural nitrogen losses to groundwater;
  • supporting research to assess the ability for alternative conservation practices, including saturated buffers and bioreactors, to minimize sources of nitrogen to surface and groundwater; and
  • developing strategies and outreach programs that encourage the full implementation of nutrient management plans.

Address public health and environmental concerns regarding PFAS.

PFAS have been detected in both municipal and private drinking water sources in Wisconsin. PFAS have also been found in groundwater near Department of Defense sites in Wisconsin, such as Wisconsin Air National Guard facilities at Truax Field and Volk Field. PFAS are present in many consumer products and AFFFs. Current studies of these PFAS suggest 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. EPA research suggests that some PFAS may have the potential to cause cancer.

The GCC recommends the following actions be supported to address PFAS concerns:

  • implement DHS recommendations for groundwater enforcement standards for two PFAS, PFOA and PFOS, in accordance with State law;
  • pursue development of additional groundwater enforcement standards for PFAS compounds detected in Wisconsinl;
  • continue to identify PFAS sources and their potential impacts to groundwater and other environmental media;
  • develop benchmarks for PFAS in other media such as surface water, biosolids and sludge to protect groundwater resources; and
  • support the Wisconsin PFAS Action Council (WisPAC) in developing and coordinating statewide initiatives around PFAS.

Ongoing recommendations

Without ongoing attention to the following needs, Wisconsin cannot address the priority recommendations or begin to understand emerging issues.

Evaluate the occurrence of viruses and other pathogens in groundwater and groundwater-sourced water supplies and develop appropriate response tools.

Viruses and other microbial pathogens have been found in municipal and domestic wells, challenging previous assumptions about their persistence and transport. Monitoring and assessment should focus on refining our understanding of pathogens in groundwater, in particular, where and when they pose threats to human health. Agencies should also work with partners to increase awareness of waste disposal choices, their risks and costs.

Support the sustainable management of groundwater quantity and quality in the state to ensure that water is available to be used, which will protect and improve our health, economy and environment now and into the future.

This includes:

  • supporting an inventory of information on the location, quantity and uses of the state’s groundwater;
  • supporting targeted monitoring and modeling of the impact of groundwater withdrawals on other waters of the state;
  • supporting identification and evaluation of options for areas with limited groundwater resources; and
  • supporting research relating to changes in land-use development patterns and the resulting increase in groundwater use and changes to recharge

Continue to catalog Wisconsin's groundwater resources.

Measuring the streamflow at Highland Big Springs in Iowa County.
Measuring the streamflow at Highland Big Springs
in Iowa County. © DNR.

Management and protection of Wisconsin’s groundwater resources requires publicly-accessible and up-to-date data in order to foster informed decisions, not only on state policy matters but also for sound business decisions on siting or technology investments. State agencies and the University should continue to collect, catalog, share and interpret new data about Wisconsin’s groundwater so that it can be used by health care providers, people seeking business locations, homeowners and local governments. Options for sharing data about groundwater and groundwater vulnerabilities should include accessible formats like online mapping tools. Wisconsin should improve the accessibility of current data and continue to encourage research efforts that will provide information.

Evaluate potential impacts of climate change on Wisconsin’s groundwater.

Elevated groundwater levels resulting in high lake levels at Fish Lake, a seepage lake near Hancock, WI.
Elevated groundwater levels resulting in high lake
levels at Fish Lake, a seepage lake near Hancock,
WI. © DNR.

Climate change is increasing the frequency and severity of weather patterns that may produce unprecedented flooding or drought conditions. More severe flooding can affect groundwater quality, wells and water system operations. Public drinking water supplies as well as water-dependent industries need reliable estimates of these effects in order to develop practical emergency response and adaptation strategies. Additionally, land and water use patterns may also change and affect the groundwater supply. These may include biological or chemical contamination issues, or an increased demand for groundwater by agricultural, municipal and commercial users. More work is needed to determine the range of possible climates in Wisconsin’s future. Work is also needed on feedback mechanisms between climate and groundwater to fully characterize possible changes to Wisconsin’s groundwater resource. This research will help identify both flood and drought response and long-term management strategies for Wisconsin’s groundwater supply.

Support applied groundwater research in Wisconsin.

Wisconsin is recognized as a national leader in groundwater research, which is appropriate given how uniquely important this resource is for public health, the economy and the environment in this state.

  • Wisconsin leads the nation in the number of public water systems that rely on groundwater (more than 11,000).
  • Over 97% of agricultural irrigation water and more than one third of the water used for commercial and industrial purposes come from groundwater supplies.
  • Many ecosystems in Wisconsin are strongly dependent on groundwater availability and groundwater quality.

Wisconsin's reputation for groundwater research is largely due to the well–established joint solicitation process for groundwater research and monitoring projects coordinated by the GCC. This approach streamlines proposal writing and the review process and improves communication among agencies and researchers. The solicitation is a coordinated effort of the University of Wisconsin System and the Wisconsin Departments of Natural Resources; Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection; and Safety and Professional Services.

Collectively, since its inception this annual joint solicitation has funded 494 groundwater research and monitoring projects and has helped establish Wisconsin as an international leader in groundwater research. The GCC recommends the following actions be taken to support applied groundwater research in Wisconsin:

  • Restoring the original authorized amounts of DNR and UW groundwater research funding (adjusted for inflation using U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics Consumer Price Index calculator) to DNR $329,255 and UW $426,790 annually. Restoring funds to this level would allow nearly half of the submitted proposals to be funded each year instead of 1/6 to 1/4 typically funded over the last ten years. Alternatively, increasing the funding to $500,000 each for DNR and UW would allow the joint solicitation program to better attract qualified researchers to address concerns such as PFAS, which is more expensive to test for and research than most other groundwater issues facing Wisconsin.
  • Additional consideration could be given to create dedicated funding mechanisms for the departments of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection; Health Services; and Safety and Professional Services to conduct groundwater research targeting the needs of each respective agency.
Groundwater Coordinating Council