FOX 11 Investigates Kewaunee County's groundwater contamination

Biologist examines groundwater samples from Kewaunee County at USDA lab in Marshfield, WI (WLUK PHOTO)

KEWAUNEE COUNTY (WLUK) -- Just what's in the groundwater in Kewaunee County? That’s one of the many questions state and federal scientists are working to figure out.

“We've never seen this level of contamination before,” said Mark Borchardt, a USDA micro biologist studying Kewaunee groundwater from his lab in Marshfield.

The groundwater contamination is a problem that has been flowing for decades.

“Yes, it has been ignored for a very long time in Kewaunee County,” said State Rep. Joel Kitchens, R-Sturgeon Bay, who represents Kewaunee County.

Scientists call the new water test results alarming.

“We saw a mix of things in those samples,” said Maureen Muldoon, a geology professor at the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh, who is a co-principal investigator in the study collecting water samples for the study.

The state and federal biologists are in the midst of wrapping up a two-year study focusing on the groundwater contamination in Kewaunee County.

“What this thing is designed to do is sample for bacteria and viruses and so these filters are dialysis filters,” Muldoon said about equipment she updating in the basement of Chuck Wagner's rural Kewaunee County home.

“This is really to get at the timing when the pathogens move,” said Muldoon.

To figure just what's in the groundwater in Kewaunee County and what has contaminated all the well water there, FOX 11 Investigates traveled to Marshfield. It's there at the USDA facilities that microbiologists are examining those tainted water samples.

“We have 26 wells contaminated with dairy manure, we have 18 wells contaminated with human waste water and we have three wells that have both,” said Mark Borchardt.

He's describing the findings from 52 wells out of 82 his group randomly sampled. The contamination rate: 63 percent.

“It's a very large percentage of wells in Kewaunee County that have microorganisms in those wells, that shouldn't be there,” said Borchardt.

Residents may qualify for low- or no-interest loans to drill new wells, or free bottled water in emergency situations, but environmentalists say little has been done to address the source of the problem.

In addition to the extent of the problem, and the source of the contamination--cattle or people, the study also aims to understand just when the pathogens are turning up in the wells...and what's triggering the overall problem.

“For over 15 years now we drink nothing but bottled water,” said Chuck Wagner, a Kewaunee County resident.

The water coming from the tap in Wagner's kitchen looks clear, but test results showing high nitrate levels tell a different tale. That's why he volunteered to allow addition research on his well water for better understanding of when and why the contaminants show up.

“It's maybe not for me so much it's for the public and everybody to understand how these contaminates are moving through the aquifer,” said Wagner.

In fact biologists discovered as far back as 1955 that the bedrock under much of Kewaunee and the surrounding counties is fractured dolomite. Those fractures or cracks allows groundwater to spread more quickly. And worse yet, in this part of the state the top soil is shallow. So when manure or pesticides are spread on the land, there isn't much soil to act as a filter, before it enters the aquifer.

“Fractured dolomite aquifer with shallow soils over it. That's a highly vulnerable aquifer,” said Borchardt.

For years, farmers were to blame for the contaminated wells by spreading cow manure on the fields. Kewaunee County is home to 15 mega farms. The total number of cows in the county tops 100,000.

Last year FOX11 Investigates spoke with John Pagel, owner of Ponderosa Dairy farm in Kewaunee County. He maintains that farmers are taking steps with spreading manure and cover crops to prevent groundwater contamination.

“I believe the efforts of the farmers themselves even on a voluntary basis are going to help solve the problem,” Pagel said at the time.

The farmers group Peninsula Pride Farms, of which Pagel is a member, also reiterates there are ongoing efforts to have safe, clean drinking water coincide with a thriving agriculture community.

FOX11 WEB EXTRA--Farmers Working to Address Groundwater Contamination

But testing shows bacteria and viruses from human waste also showing up in wells--likely from septic systems. And early results indicate the level of groundwater dictates what type of contamination is detected.

“And that is, when groundwater levels are falling that's primarily when we see the wells contaminated with human waste water,” said Borchardt. “When the groundwater levels are rising that's when we see the bovine manure.”

This is a new study, that's never been done before looking at a new aspect, Borchardt explained.

But with the latest scientific findings, are volunteer efforts enough to fix the problem? In part two of our investigation into groundwater contamination we’ll detail how the groundwater study, going on now, is impacting plans to clean up the water moving forward and why it’s taken so long to address.

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