Water quality uprising

(First published in the August 22, 2019 issue of City Pages)

With the state’s new bipartisan commission on water quality, some locals are optimistic that problems in central Wisconsin might finally see real action


State Rep. Katrina Shankland (D-Stevens Point) became interested in water issues before she was even elected to state office. She had learned about the high nitrate levels in drinking water around the Central Sands region, which includes her district and home in Portage County. Having previously worked at the Midwest Renewable Energy Association, Shankland knew many people very familiar with local water issues. And those issues came to the forefront on the campaign trail before she was elected in November 2012.

The issue of water quality really hit home during a campaign event at Clancy’s in Custer, a few miles east of Stevens Point. The topic of conversation became water and the nearby river. Many groups concerned about water quality and quantity were in attendance. “Someone said, ‘Katrina, if you want to be an elected official, you need to learn about water issues,’” Shankland says. “In a short amount of time, I realized what I didn’t know.”

Today Shankland serves as the vice chair of a new initiative of Gov. Tony Evers, the bipartisan Water Quality Task Force chaired by Rep. Todd Novak (R-Dodgeville). This summer the task force has been traveling the state taking input from groups and anyone who shows up to speak their peace or learn more.

Shankland is a logical choice for the committee. The Central Sands region has plenty of problems with water. Groundwater wells in Portage County have some of the highest nitrate levels in wells in the state. Wells average 6 milligrams per liter and many are much higher, according to data provided by UW–Stevens Point water expert George Kraft.

Just to the north, Marathon County isn’t nearly as bad, with wells averaging 4 milligrams per liter. But that’s still not good. Any groundwater nitrates over 2 mg/L indicate a source of contamination, according to the Wisconsin Groundwater Coordinating Council’s report to the legislature in 2018.

About 10% of Marathon County wells are contaminated, says Paul Daigle, director of the county’s Land and Water Program. That’s hardly the worst in the state, but as Daigle points out, that’s not much comfort if you have among the one in ten contaminated wells in the area.

Portage County also has an issue with water quantity. Lakes and streams in low rain years have been drying up. The Little Plover River went completely dry for the first time in 2005 and has done so several times since. Kraft has argued that high-capacity wells, coupled with sandy soil that doesn’t retain water, has been a recipe for lakes and streams drying up.

A report from the Wisconsin Groundwater Coordinating Council to the legislature for fiscal year 2018 highlights the problem statewide. According to the report, 284 public water supply systems (referring mostly to wells that serve rural taverns, restaurants and mobile home parks) exceed the nitrate drinking water standard of 10 mg/L, which at that level is considered contaminated.

And in 2017, DATCP estimated 8% of private wells in the state exceeded the 10 mg/L standard. Research from Marshfield Clinic, the report says, showed 23% of private wells tested positive for viruses, and 3% positive for E. coli. The report also found arsenic and volatile organic compounds (VOCs) in wells.

Those concerned about water issues are hopeful about Evers declaring 2019 “the year of clean drinking water in Wisconsin.” But declarations are easy, and public hearings only a little more challenging. Mustering the political will to implement changes comes next, and experts say changes will likely mean more funding for infrastructure, more funding for Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources positions, and the will to pass legislation that comes out of the task force.

But the fact that this is a bipartisan committee, called for by two Republican legislators (Novak, its chair, and Rep. Travis Tranel of Cuba City) gives hope to those invested in water issues that real action is coming.

Water in Marathon County


“I’m optimistic for the first time in a decade that they’re going to start addressing this,” Daigle says about the Big Eau Pleine water issues.

The Big Eau Pleine reservoir, fed by the Wisconsin River and its tributaries in western Marathon County, has experienced real problems. Mainly, the amount of oxygen in its water. The Big Eau Pleine experienced a major fish kill in 2009, and one not quite as severe in 2013.

The problem? Phosphorus. Runoff from manure leads to excess phosphorus in the water, which promotes algae growth, which robs the water of the oxygen fish need to survive. The problem is worse in winter and led to massive fish die-offs in 2009 and 2013.

Aerators have been installed, but they’re Band-aids on a bigger problem. Part of the county’s 5-year strategic plan is to reduce the amount of phosphorus in the Big Eau Pleine basin. That would require changing how farms operate in Marathon County, and that’s not easy, especially since the county really has little authority to regulate things such as manure spreading and stream buffers. Under the current regulatory structure, farms with animal units of 1,000 or more fall under the more strict regulation of the state DNR. Farms with animal units 500-1,000 fall under country rules, and farms with fewer than 500 units aren’t regulated at all.

Daigle has been exploring changes in county regulations such as reducing or eliminating winter spreading of manure. He’s hopeful the new state task force will lead to serious considerations of water quality issues in Marathon County. “I’m optimistic for the first time in a decade that they’re going to start addressing this,” Daigle says.

Phosphorus isn’t the only issue, Daigle says. Marathon County has been working on a septic tank replacement program. A state grant program to help people replace their tanks is about to end, and the county is putting a revolving loan fund in its place. The idea of both programs is to help people replace their septic tanks, because a failing septic system can lead to serious water contamination. There are about 1,000 systems in the county that need replacement. One problem: Even a low-interest loan is hard for a low-income household already struggling to make ends meet.

Another issue is state funding of county conservation positions. Wisconsin law says the state should be funding three conservation positions in Marathon County, and every other county in the state, Daigle says. Currently the state funds only 1.5 of the positions it’s supposed to in Marathon County.

The state is spending $9 million on such positions, and that figure needs to increase to $12.5 million to meet the basic requirements. And really, to address the conservation needs of counties in Wisconsin, it should be even more than that, Daigle says.

Hey you with the Big Mac

And there’s another contaminant on environmentalists’ radar. Remember fast food places turned to wrappers instead of Styrofoam containers? Much better for the environment, right?

Not exactly, says Meleesa Johnson, Director of the Marathon County Solid Waste Department. The new wrappers that replaced them are coated with a chemical compound called PFAS, which stands for perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances. The category covers nearly 5,000 synthetic chemicals, and was first produced by the company 3M as a surfactant in 1949 to coat a surface. Think Scotchguard, polishes, non-stick cookware and fast-food wrapping paper.

PFAS are now everywhere in the environment. U.S. Food and Drug Administration discovered PFAS in pineapple, sweet potato, meat, and chocolate cake, which the public found out about in June. 3M, which produce the chemical, is facing several class action lawsuits over its development of PFAS.

The knowledge that PFAS, which is linked to health problems including thyroid disease and decreased female fertility, is in our food and water supply has led Wisconsin to propose the strictest standards of PFAS in groundwater. The federal standard recommended by the Environmental Protection Agency for PFAS is 70 parts per trillion, but the Wisconsin Dept. of Health Services’ new proposed standard is only 20 parts per trillion.

The problem, Johnson says, is that the standard isn’t based on any science because there isn’t yet a reliable test method of PFAS in groundwater.

These standards could also affect Wausau’s new wastewater treatment plant’s ability to apply sludge from the wastewater treatment plant to farm fields. The current plant applies waste sludge to fields, but the new plant is supposed to produce waste sludge at a high enough quality that it could be used by farmers as a fertilizer.

The Wisconsin DNR in July sent a letter to 125 wastewater treatment plants in Wisconsin—including Wausau, Stevens Point and Merrill— asking them to test for PFAS.

But the problem, says Wausau Public Works Director Eric Lindman, is that there is no standard for testing PFAS in wastewater treatment plants. There is for drinking water, and the highest Wausau’s plant tested so far was 15 parts per trillion —below the standard issued by the DNR. But for wastewater treatment plants, Lindman says, there are at least three different tests and they all yield different results.

Wausau doesn’t plan to test for those reasons, and many others aren’t as well, Lindman says.

Local citizen action group Citizens for a Cleaner Wausau has been leading the way in Wausau in sounding the alarm on potential contamination in the Wausau area, particularly focusing on the Thomas Street corridor. In response to a question from City Pages on the potential for the task force, CCW issued a statement saying the group is encouraged by the state efforts, especially since it involves public input; but is also skeptical.

“As we have learned from the shortcomings and failures of Wisconsin’s Brownfields and Redevelopment initiatives, major polluters should not and cannot continue to be treated as clients by our regulatory agencies. In our opinion, the task force must prioritize the input of citizens and scientists, while minimizing the influence of big money special interests on outcomes, if it is to maximize protection of the environment and citizens’ health. At the end of the day, you cannot expect to substantially reduce environmental contamination without first addressing the contamination of Wisconsin’s regulatory dynamic — one which has been polluted by powerful corporate lobbyists and influence.”

Path to cleaner water


Shankland: “We need to keep pushing these issues, because they’re only going to get more urgent.”

Rep. Shankland has made water one of her primary issues since getting elected. She’s met with advocacy groups for groundwater, rivers, lakes. She’s attended numerous Portage County Planning and Zoning meetings. She’s met with everyone from citizen advocates to farmers and producers. “It’s been hundreds of hours,” Shankland estimates.

All that adds up to important experience and knowledge of perspectives Shankland can take to the Water Quality Task Force. “We want to have a science-based conversation with experts to determine how to protect people in vulnerable areas, and to keep agriculture thriving,” Shankland says.

The task force has held eight of the 13 meetings it plans. The task force will then compile what they’ve learned from citizens, advocacy groups, farmers and other organizations into a report, which will,  in theory, become the basis of new legislation aimed at making water in Wisconsin cleaner.

“I feel we’ve accomplished more in this task force under Evers than we have in seven years,” Shankland says. “I’m thrilled with the progress, but we need to keep pushing these issues, because they’re only going to get more urgent.”