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Well sampling effort to move west

Well sampling effort to move west Well sampling effort to move west

By Kevin O’Brien

Since starting a groundwater testing campaign a year ago, Marathon County has collected about 240 well samples from residents east of Wausau and signed up another 600 landowners from the western and southern parts of the county.

Laurie Miskimins, director of the county’s Conservation, Planning and Zoning (CPZ), told members of the Environmental Resources Committee last Friday that her department completed its first round of well testing in November, and it expects lab results back “any day now.” The goal is to collect 20 to 25 samples from every township in the county, for a total of about 1,000 wells being tested.

Last January, the county board allocated $275,000 for CPZ staff to update the county’s groundwater protection plan, which was first written in 2001 and contains a lot of outdated information about well contamination. CPZ is working with UW-Stevens Point’s Water and Environmental Lab (WEAL) to test wells across the county and produce a draft rewrite of the protection plan by December of 2024.

Miskimins said CPZ staff will be collecting groundwater samples from the western part of the county in February, with test results expected in April or May. Once the updated data is See WATER/ page 2 Water

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available, she said her department plans on hosting public workshops to educate people about groundwater quality and hear their concerns, with the ultimate goal of developing longterm strategies for protecting the county’s drinking water.

Dale Grosskurth, environmental health coordinator for the Health Department, said nitrate contamination, which usually comes from agricultural operations, is a top concern in Marathon County, but wells can also be tainted by uranium, beryllium, arsenic, manganese and various types of bacteria.

Grosskurth said the Wisconsin DNR’s Well Compensation Grant Program, which provides up to $12,000 for replacing or treating a polluted well, has recently benefited 16 families in the county, along with two businesses and a church with longstanding nitrate issues. The grant program criteria was expanded thanks to $10 million from the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA), which became available at the beginning of 2023.

County conservationist Kirstie Heidenreich said the DNR grants were “absolutely the catalyst” for people to address chronic drinking water hazards because they reduced the significant expense of treating or replacing wells. She showed the committee a map displaying how the grant recipients live in every part of the county, indicating that contamination is not necessarily concentrated in one area. Heidenreich credited conservation technician Andy Shep with reaching out to members of the Amish and Mennonite communities, many of whom have never had their wells tested.

“It’s been extremely rewarding to work with many of these landowners,” she said, noting that county staff helped many of them fill out the grant applications. “We’ve received a lot of positive feedback from those landowners.”

The county has developed a unique approach to community outreach – what staff call “The Marathon Method” – that involves notifying neighboring property owners when a well is found to be contaminated, investigating the causes of contamination, and integrating nutrient management plans to prevent fertilizer seepage, Heidenreich said.

“We have been trying our hardest to make sure there are no barriers in place to getting people safe drinking water in Marathon County,” she said.

Looking ahead, Heidenreich said the DNR expects to run out of ARPA funds for the well grants soon, just as the need for well remediation is expected to increase as more county residents test their groundwater.

“We are concerned that there will be limited funding options available for those citizens once the ARPA money is gone,” she said.

The county’s groundwater workgroup, which consists of about 20 people, has been thinking about asking the county to use its own ARPA funds to provide funding to residents who need to address well contamination, she said. Portage County has started its own grant program that offers up to $2,000 per family so they can install reverse osmosis treatment devices on their kitchen faucets, she said.

Heidenreich said the outreach efforts required to update the county’s groundwater protection plan have put the issue on people’s radars like never before.

“I cannot tell you how many hundreds of meaningful conversations we’ve had with residents around the county related to groundwater,” she said.

Other business

n Miskimins said the village of Maine is interested in adopting the county’s animal waste ordinance, in anticipation of a manure digester being built at Van Der Geest Dairy. County officials will be presenting more information to the village board at its February meeting, she said, and if the board adopts the ordinance, the county will be in charge of enforcing it, with any cost recouped through a service agreement.

n CPZ staffer Shad Harvey said the department is thinking about proposing an increase in the $200.50 fine for landowners who fail to pump their septic systems every three years, as required by the state. He said some residents just choose to pay the fine instead of spending an average of $350 for pumping their septic system.

Laurie Miskimins