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Clean drinking water


Andrea Zani

Young boy drinking from glass of waterGov. Tony Evers declared 2019 the Year of Clean Drinking Water, and the DNR continues its decades-long work to protect the state's vital water resources.

In 1984, the Wisconsin Legislature passed a pioneering law designed "for the protection of public health and welfare" regarding one of the most basic requirements for human existence: the water we drink.

These Groundwater Protection Standards in Chapter 160 of Wisconsin state statutes — or simply, the Groundwater Law — instantly became the nation's most sweeping criteria for fighting pollution and ensuring the highest standards to keep our water safe.

Thirty-five years later, the battle for clean water for everyone marches on. Gov. Tony Evers declared 2019 the Year of Clean Drinking Water because thousands of families do not have access to safe, clean drinking water.

"No one should ever be afraid to turn on their tap. Clean drinking water is a public health priority," said DNR Secretary-designee Preston Cole. "Water is life-giving."

The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources has a long history of water protection. In addition to the groundwater law, the DNR is responsible for implementing and enforcing the Safe Drinking Water Act to safeguard the quality of Wisconsin's drinking water.

Here you'll find just a quick overview of a few hot topics regarding drinking water and groundwater. This magazine has long featured stories on DNR's work in this area and will continue to do so.

Although the official Year of Clean Drinking Water is coming to an end, the DNR's work is not. From the

emerging concerns of newly recognized contaminants to ongoing issues concerning lead, runoff and other classic pollutants, striving for clean drinking water carries on and moves the Wisconsin way — forward.

PFAS front and center

The acronym PFAS is being heard a lot lately and stands for per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances. This group of human-made chemicals has been used for decades in numerous products including non-stick cookware, fast-food packaging, stain-resistant sprays and certain types of firefighting foam that have made their way into the environment.

Fire-fighting foam being sprayed on a fireFirefighting foams can contain types of chemicals known as PFAS, which may leach into groundwater.

Work is underway to understand PFAS, including its health effects, and take steps to ensure safety. In July, following recent discoveries of PFAS contamination around the state, the DNR initiated a new voluntary testing program at 125 municipal wastewater treatment facilities. With known PFAS issues in Marinette, the DNR has been holding listening sessions there to keep the public informed.

The agency also is developing administrative rules to establish groundwater quality standards for two common PFAS compounds (no federal standards are currently in place). That process, outlined by Wisconsin law, follows science-based recommendations developed through interagency work with the state's Department of Health Services and Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection.

In early October, the DNR received results from the State Lab of Hygiene on a first round of testing for PFAS in surface water samples from five waterbodies near known or suspected PFAS contamination sites. Results showed elevated levels of PFOS, one type of PFAS, in Madison's Starkweather Creek and in Silver Creek in Monroe County, and lower levels at three other waterbodies.

Results are posted on the DNR's PFAS initiatives website: WaterQuality.html. These results and two more rounds of testing, including fish tissue sampling, will help direct DNR's investigative work regarding PFAS and inform efforts toward additional actions.

The most updated information on this developing issue can be found on the DNR's PFAS website, More health-related information is available from DHS,

Looking out for lead

As the water crisis in Flint, Michigan, showed, exposure to lead from aging water pipes is a public health concern that requires a proactive approach. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Wisconsin's children are affected by lead poisoning in greater numbers than many other states.

Lead can leach into drinking water, causing serious health problems including permanent brain damage among children and infants.

Gloved hand holding test tube labelled Lead-TestLab testing is the only way to know if a water supply contains lead.

Wisconsin law banned lead solder in plumbing materials in 1984, four years before such a ban was implemented nationally. Some lead drinking water fixtures continued to be manufactured until 1996. Lead can enter drinking water when plumbing materials and water lines suffer corrosion.

In October, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced proposed updates to the federal Lead and Copper Rule for the first time in nearly 30 years, looking to improve testing, strengthen treatment requirements and keep the public better informed when issues arise.

Removal of lead service lines (LSL) is one way to help prevent lead from getting into drinking water. The only way to know if your water supply contains lead is through testing, and the DNR's Bureau of Drinking Water and Groundwater maintains a list of accredited testing laboratories for lead and other substances. Find links on the Drinking Water homepage.

For municipalities, the DNR offers funding options for LSL replacement through the Safe Drinking Water Loan Program. Wisconsin's Public Service Commission also assists municipalities with LSL concerns.

Ensure you're well served

There are more than 800,000 private wells in Wisconsin, serving drinking water needs of roughly a quarter of the state's population. Nitrate contamination is Wisconsin's most widespread groundwater contaminant. It is increasing in severity and extent.

Private wells usually serve a single home or farmhouse, with the homeowner largely responsible for maintenance and safeguarding. Issues with a well's water can include such things as bacterial contamination or excess nitrates, especially harmful to infants and pregnant women.

Livestock manure is one contaminant that may infiltrate the water in wells. One way the DNR is addressing this issue is by regulating Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations, or CAFOs, an important part of agribusiness in the state, defined as including 1,000 animal units or more. Naturally, an operation that feeds so many animals also must handle significant amounts of waste.

To keep pollutants from entering surface water and groundwater, the DNR regulates manure application and waste storage structures at CAFOs. Permitting is done in accordance with the federal Clean Water Act and the U.S. pollutant discharge permit program, known in this state as the Wisconsin Pollutant Discharge Elimination System.

Contamination of well water can be from point sources, sites that are known contributors, or from nonpoint sources, which can include indeterminate runoff from residential, agricultural and natural sources. As with lead, the only way to know whether well water contains excessive levels of nitrates or other pollutants is through water sample testing by a certified laboratory.

Council coordinates outreach

The Groundwater Coordinating Council, an interagency group dating to the passage of the Groundwater Law in 1984, facilitates activities related to groundwater in the state. This includes data management, public education, support for research activities and more.

The DNR provides administrative support for the GCC, which meets quarterly and sponsors forums and other outreach efforts. The GCC also prepares an annual report to the Legislature each August, summarizing council activities and addressing the state of groundwater resources in Wisconsin. Search, "GCC," for more.

Other DNR water work related to the Legislature can be found with the newly created Speaker's Task Force on Water Quality. The bipartisan group dedicated to water quality issues held public hearings statewide this year. The DNR joined other agencies at those hearings and in formulating water quality recommendations for the Task Force.

Public water data

Public Water Systems fall under regulations of the federal Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA) passed in 1974 and administered in Wisconsin by the DNR. A PWS has at least 15 service connections or serves an average of 25 people daily.

Through regular inspections, DNR drinking water experts help public well operators with SDWA compliance such as well code and sanitary standards. The DNR maintains a public Drinking Water System database with information including sample results, inspection findings, violations and other details; check

The database is just one more way to help safeguard water supplies for all of us.

Andrea Zani is managing editor of Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine. Information for this report was culled from a variety of DNR program web pages, Wisconsin DNR.


Numerous water quality topics are covered in-depth through links found at the DNR's main landing page for Drinking water.