WATER RICH, WATER POOR | AN IN WISCONSIN SPECIAL

Water Rich, Water Poor

This documentary was first broadcast in August 2000.

Most of Wisconsin relies on ground water for all its water needs. While this resource is in great abundance, it is not unlimited. Parts of Wisconsin with high populations and/or great water use are running into water availability/quality problems. Since water flows below the surface, high use in one area can affect water availability and quality in another area. Below are resources providing more information about Wisconsin groundwater.

Groudwater cycle Impact of wells
 
Transcript
 

WOMAN:
Once you've started taking from the springs and you're in there, there's no turning back.

HACKETT:
When water bottler Perrier talked about packaging the state's spring water, Wisconsin folks started worrying about whether they had enough water to share.

MAN:
You want to drill now and find out about what the consequences are later.

MAN:
We don't just start pumping and watch everything dry up.

MAN:
I truly believe that there's an underground system of water coming, whether it's from Lake Superior or the through the north through the ground.

WOMAN:
It's our name in our community-- it's Big Springs. It's provided our families in the area with much enjoyment with wildlife, and good living and good clean water to drink. And we need to be concerned about it.

HACKETT:
Given Wisconsin's history putting water in bottles, they just said Old Style, Schlitz, or Leinenkugels on them, you may have assumed there was plenty of water to go around.

1984 UW EXTENSION FILM:
The fact is you can drill a well almost anywhere in Wisconsin and you'll find an abundance of clean groundwater. Wisconsin is water rich.

HACKETT:
Or so we thought.

MICHAEL LEMCKE:
Compared to the states out west we're a water rich state. There's no doubt about that. But we can be water rich, and water poor..At the same time.

HACKETT:
Since people were have been asking whether Wisconsin has enough water to share, we decided to ask the question. How much water do we actually have? The answer? It depends. In the northern parts of the state, where granite bedrock is close to the surface, a well wouldn't produce the volumes of water a business like Perrier needs. In other parts of the state, developers are promoting artificial lakes filled with water pumped from the ground. But there are limits to Wisconsin's water wealth. And around the state, cities are starting to bump into them.

BOY INÊ1984 UW EXTENSION FILM:
I'm getting water for our family because we have a water problem.

HACKETT:
This film from the early 1980s tells the story of some residents of Wisconsin Rapids who hooked up to the city water system after their private wells were contaminated.

1984 UW EXTENSION FILM:
Hooking up to the adjacent city's wells will provide clean water.

HACKETT:
Because these people and many others hooked onto Wisconsin Rapids' water system, the city drilled new wells. But those wells came at a price. There are now times when Bloody Run Creek doesn't run at all.

DENNIS PELOT:
We've been here two summers now, and when we were actually sold the house, we were told it was one of the best trout streams in the state. And that summer, when everything was run off or cleared up, we found out it was bone dry dirt and branches.

HACKETT:
Dennis Pelot lives just east of Wisconsin Rapids. Bloody Run Creek, so called because of deposits left by iron rich groundwater which feeds it, runs through his backyard.

PELOT:
The person that actually built this house, he had a water wheel that was mounted on these two brackets here. The water wheel would spin with the water came down the creek. There's no need for it.

JACK ZIMMERMAN:
This was a class one brook trout stream, which means there was natural reproduction of brook trout in here.

HACKETT:
Jack Zimmerman was a Department of Natural Resources fish biologist at the time Wisconsin Rapids dug the well.

ZIMMERMAN:
Our concern was the consultants predicted that since the well was close to the stream, it would lower the water levels in the stream. So, our recommendation was to move it to another site.

JIM REINOLT:
We have records, also, that show before that well was put in, that there were periods of the creek being dry.

HACKETT:
Nonetheless, Wisconsin Rapids Water Superintendent Jim Reinolt says they did slightly move the well's location to reduce impacts on the creek and agreed to limit the amount of water pumped from the well. But under Wisconsin law, Wisconsin Rapids didn't have to do anything. The limited wisconsin case law leaves groundwater more or less fair game for any "reasonable use." But even "reasonable use" involving high capacity wells can cause problems with creeks and shallow household wells, because of the way the groundwater system works.

RON HENNINGS:
You actually have water coming in like this from all sides. This represents the natural spring flow, groundwater seepage, into the river or stream.

HACKETT:
The thing to remember is groundwater and surface water are the same water. Ron Hennings of the Wisconsin Geological and Natural History Survey uses what he calls the "ant farm" to demonstrate what happens when a well draws water near a stream.

HENNINGS:
Instead of the flow all moving towards the stream right here, we're now getting flow deflected it's moving down toward a pumping well here. We've actually de-watered this part of the aquifer right here because we're pumping the water out of this well. That's what basically happens in real life, too.

REINOLT:
It isn't that the groundwater is being used up. It's just that there's more straws in that aquifer than there used to be.

HACKETT:
The city of Wisconsin Rapids, and the nearby township where Bloody Run Creek begins are now trying to live within an agreement struck earlier to mitigate the well's effects.

TOM BUSS:
It was in there that there would be water in the creek at all times.

HACKETT:
Is there water in the creek at all times?

BUSS:
No, that's the problem. A lot of people downstream built on this creek because it was a nice little creek. They walk right out their back door and they're at the creek. And, well, if you've just got a swamp down there you might as well move to Florida.

HACKETT:
Because Wisconsin Rapids is still growing, the city is starting to think about drilling yet another well. The DNR, mindful of what happened with Bloody Run Creek, is asking them to at least consider drawing water from either the Wisconsin River or Nepco Lake.

REINOLT:
Everybody felt that the Great Lakes region was an area where fresh water would always be there. And it is there. It's just because of the growth in the area, it's not as easy to get to without a lot of expense.

HACKETT:
At what point will we no longer be able to be able to count on groundwater to reliably supply our collective faucets? If you live in Green Bay, the answer is 1957.

BILL NABAK:
We kind of outgrew the abilities of the aquifer in the early '50s. And in '57, we started using Lake Michigan for all practical purposes as our exclusive source.

HACKETT:
Since 1957, Green Bay has drawn its water through a 30 mile long pipeline that extends all the way to Kewaunee. The water goes through an extensive treatment plant midway. Lake water requires more treatment than well water. That expense is one reason the suburbs surrounding Green Bay continued pumping their wells. But forty years of continued growth finally caught up with them.

CAMERON MCCAIN:
A lot of the private wells are drying up, especially in the town of Hobart. They've been having real problems. The aquifer many of us are on in the eastern part of Wisconsin is dropping.

HACKETT:
Just like Green Bay, Allouez and seven other Brown County municipalities are planning to build their own pipeline to the lake. Just like Green Bay, they'll have to build their own treatment plant. The price tag is estimated at between $163 million and $175 million. Because of the expense of pipelines and treatment plants, cities are searching for ways to stretch the capacity of existing ones. That's why Green Bay, which hasn't used its wells for decades, is drilling a new waterhole. It's not so they can take water out. It's so they can put treated water from Lake Michigan, in.

DAVE WITTIG:
The intent is to store water during low demand times, for instance, during the winter months. And then at high peak demands, normally during the summer, we will pump out of our well into our distribution system. Therefore saving on the expansion of our existing facilities.

NABAK:
Hopefully, we'll be able to utilize God's natural storage facilities underground.

HACKETT:
But the department of natural resources considers aquifer storage experimental. There are questions whether the process is safe.

RICHARD ROTH:
The water that you're putting into that aquifer is geochemically different from the native groundwater, which has flowed there for hundreds of thousands of years.

HACKETT:
The DNRis concerned lakewater could dissolve arsenic and other naturally occurring contaminants, which would then wind up at your faucet when pumped back into the system.

NABAK:
If it were to create some unforeseen chemical reactions, they haven't shown up anywhere else in the country or the world, where this concept has already been tested. Certainly, if that were to happen, we'd support a banning of the project immediately.

ROTH:
We don't want to get put in the position of triggering a geochemical process that can't be stopped.

HACKETT:
Sometimes taking water out of a lake might be a popular choice, especially when lake levels are high and water is flooding the homes on the shore. Here's some news. Madison is drawing from these lakes, even though the city uses nothing but well water. Confused?

KEN BRADBURY:
On this map, the redder and greener areas are areas where there's been significant draw down in the sandstone aquifer around Madison.

HACKETT:
Ken Bradbury, of the Wisconsin Geological and Natural History Survey, has been chronicling the effects on Madison and Dane County as more and more water is pumped from the ground.

BRADBURY:
Historically, pre-development, lakes were a sink for groundwater. In other words groundwater flowed into them and discharged into them. Now because of the pumping, we've lowered water levels beneath the lakes and the lakes are actually losing groundwater over large parts of their bottoms. Groundwater's leaking out. And in fact, some madison wells are getting 30 percent of their water, which ultimately began as leakage out of the lakes.

HACKETT:
On the average day, an American uses 63 gallons of water: 25 to flush the toilet, 13 to bathe and shower, 10 for drinking and washing hands, seven for laundry, six to cook and wash dishes, and two to wash the car and water the lawn. How much does that add up to? The city of Madison pumps between 20- 35 million gallons of water a day. In comparison, Perrier is talking about bottling a maximum of only 700,000 gallons a day. But unlike agricultural wells, which operate part time, both industrial and municipal wells pump continually, creating a permanent cone of depression, an area where the water table is artificially lowered. In the case of dane county, that cone of depression keeps reaching out.

BRADBURY:
Currently, groundwater moves towards Madison along a line from about here and it moves toward the city, towards these wells. Historically, that line was several miles closer to Madison. In fact, it went somewhere just east of Verona down here.

HACKETT:
Water once started flowing towards Madison's lakes and into the Yahara River basin from a point near the Dane County nursing home, just east of Verona. The pumping of madison's wells has caused a change of direction. The groundwater divide is now as far as five miles to the south and west, somewhere beneath these farm fields.

BRADBURY:
That's a problem because, again, to maintain water quality and aquatic life and the beauty of streams like the Sugar River you need that groundwater coming in as base flow. Base flow is the constant discharge of water that maintains these streams and springs. And if we start pumping a lot we change that.

HACKETT:
The Madison Metropolitan Sewerage District is trying to remedy this by putting the water back. The district is pumping up to 3.5 Million gallons of treated sewage a day into the Sugar River basin, an attempt to restore the balance of nature.

BRADBURY:
In Wisconsin, we have very plentiful water. The problem is how we use it all in one place. Everybody's putting all their straws right in the middle of the milk shake, if you can think of it that way.

HACKETT:
Straws in a milk shake. In the early 1960s, researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point became concerned irrigation wells like these would be the straws. What would happen when the Little Plover River in Portage County became the milk shake? Forty years later, George Kraft and Bryant Browne continue to document the connection between wells and groundwater.

GEORGE KRAFT:
This water's clearer than the creek water, because this is groundwater that's discharging up through the bottom of the stream instead of water that's made it through the wetlands or anything else.

HACKETT:
Kraft says 95 percent of the water in the Little Plover comes from the ground. Very little is runoff from the surrounding fields. Even though it had rained heavily the night before, the water fell on the sandy soil and soaked in.

KRAFT:
The water level's up a little bit. But compared to other areas in the state where the same amount of water has brought flash flood warnings and such, we're just up a little bit.

HACKETT:
Kraft and his colleagues found the center pivot irrigation wells decreased stream flow in the Little Plover by about 15 percent. But the greater problem may turn out to be municipal wells, like these drilled by the village of Plover.

KRAFT:
We've done some preliminary computer modeling that show if those wells get to their design capacity, that indeed we'll be missing as much of 40 percent of the flow out of this stream.

HACKETT:
And almost all water came from rainfall on the surrounding potato fields. Please don't call it an underground river. You don't like the idea of the underground lake, the underground river?

KRAFT:
We don't like that at all.

HACKETT:
Never mind the beer commercials.

COMMERCIAL:
Far below this valley floor lies a deep underground reservoir of sparking pure spring water that some say stretches all the way to Canada...

HACKETT:
There is no underground lake, no hidden river.

KRAFT:
We have just cracks in the rock. We have spaces between sand grains that are conduits for water to move. We certainly don't have anything like an underground lake.

HENNINGS:
We still get more rainfall in the state of wisconsin than we use. We only use about three or four or five percent of the water we have available here.

HACKETT:
But there's more to the groundwater supply than just the falling rain and the water that's pumped from wells. Out of the average 30 inches of rain and snow that falls on wisconsin each year, 75 percent evaporates and goes right back into the atmosphere. Only six to ten inches of that moisture soaks in and becomes groundwater. This process is known as recharge. It's a process with which development sometimes interferes. Cities like Waukesha used to draw their water from uppermost layer of groundwater. Sometimes there were springs which brought the water which soaked in fairly nearby back to the surface. In the 1890s, Waukesha was a springs resort. The water was so prized, there was a water war when some people proposed building a pipeline to ship water to Chicago. But today, cities seeking cleaner and more plentiful water supplies drill deeper into the ground. That deep water may have taken many centuries to accumulate, and may have entered the ground far away. Which brings us to Univerisity of Wisconsin-Milwaukee geology professor Doug Cherkauer and his students. They are working with regional, state, and federal agencies to figure out how quickly the aquifers in southeast Wisconsin are being depleted.

HEIDI YANTZ:
Well, we're trying to understand how the land allows for recharge. So we're looking at the slope of the land, soil permeability, the type of land use.

HACKETT:
This field, for example, would promote recharge. It's flat and the loose sandy soil allows rainfall to soak in. But farm fields are giving way to office parks.

DOUG CHERKAUER:
We've paved it and we've put in storm sewers, so we're getting most of the water to run off across the ground surface rather than going into recharging the groundwater system.

HACKETT:
The effects show up on the computer models built with the data the students have collected. The red areas have the lowest recharge rates. Eventually, the group will know how much recharge is enough.

CRAIG LACOSSE:
The areas in gray are the highest areas of recharge at 14-plus.

HACKETT:
Craig Lacosse is pointing to a narrow strip of land. It happens to be the recharge area for the deep aquifer that supplies Waukesha with water today.

CHERKAUER:
Most of the large population centers in waukesha county are on groundwater. And most of them rely on the deep sandstone system. And it only gets its recharge from a very thin band in the western part of Waukesha county and a little bit of eastern Jefferson County.

HACKETT:
If you've driven between Madison and Milwaukee on Interstate 94, just east of Oconomowoc, you've passed over a small river connecting two lakes. That, says Cherkauer, is a channel left by the runoff from the glacier which covered the area 11,000 years ago. The flat fields nearby sit atop sediment that provide the only direct connection to the sandstone. This is where Waukesha gets its water.

CHERKAUER:
Those communities are drawing on stored groundwater, the stuff that was put in there hundreds of thousands of years ago. There's a lot there. And they have a lot of supply to draw from, but eventualy they're going to eliminate or use up that water.

HACKETT:
Cherkauer notes Waukesha's prime recharge area is also being developed into office parks, slowing the recharge rate. It's a problem cherkauer likens to one you may have with your bank account.

CHERKAUER:
You know, in you're banking account if you're withdrawing more money than you're putting in, eventually your balance goes to zero. The same thing is true in a groundwater system.

HACKETT:
As increased use of groundwater puts aquifers under stress, there can be more than just problems of too little water or reduced stream flows. Sometimes it causes water quality. Problems can present health risks.

CHERYL BARFKNECHT:
They left us a message on the answering machine. Stop drinking your water. Don't cook with your water. It was like.. I mean, that's something you use every day.

HACKETT:
Paul and Cheryl barfknecht live in the town of aAgoma, just west of Oshkosh. Well drillers call the area "arsenic alley."

PAUL BARFKNECHT:
We knew when we built in '93 that there was a problem with aresenic in the area. But we-- first time homebuilders-- we figured it would be taken care of, the well would be deep enough.

KELLY O'CONNOR:
This is an area where you do see a lot of homes real close together. It has a city type of look, where you'd expect that there would be public water here.

HACKETT:
But DNR drinking water specialist Kelley O'Connor says the city style homes hue to a country style tradition.

O'CONNOR:
They're all on wells. I'd say probably 50 percent of these people out here exceed the safe drinking water act standard for arsenic. You can see down the road here there's another whole part of the subdivision being developed, all on wells. Odds are they're all going to have a problem with arsenic.

MICHAEL LEMCKE:
People had no idea arsenic was there. We went out and were doing some routine surveillance at a landfill and the arsenic levels came up. And we said there must be some thing that was put in the landfill. And doing some further research on that, trying to figure out where the groundwater was coming, which way it was flowing, it was clear that it wasn't coming from the landfill at all. It was naturally occurring in the ground.

HACKETT:
Lemcke says the arsenic was deposited when the rock that is now wisconsin was pushed up from below. The toxic and carcinogenic heavy metal didn't cause a problem until it was exposed to air.

LEMCKE:
How did air get at it? Well, that's because we have a lot of growth, a lot of people in the area, more wells going in, public and private wells both. And they're actually drawing down the water table and exposing that layer of metals to the air.

HACKETT:
The Barfknechts purchased a system to try and remove the arsenic.

PAUL BARFKNECHT:
This ran up to our kitchen faucet.

HACKETT:
It wasn't effective. Nor was a more sophisticated system provided on an experimental basis by the dnr. They hoped it would bring the arsenic level below the federal drinking water standard of 50 parts per billion.

CHERYL BARFKNECHT:
For us on March 3, our arsenic in the raw water was 190. And then, treated water was down to 90, which is still unsafe. Macaroni and cheese uses a lot of water. This is just to boil the noodles.

HACKETT:
The Barfknechts use bottled water for drinking and cooking. They hope for the day when a treatment system will provide safe water at every faucet.

PAUL BARFKNECHT:
We both grew up -- I mean, you could drink out of any faucet. You could drink out of the hose in the yard. And when you have kids, are you putting them at an increased risk? I think about it most times when we give the kids a bath.

CHERYL BARFKNECHT:
Their skin is just so much thinner and absorbs more. They're our babies, you know.

HACKETT:
A few miles away, a drilling crew is digging a new, deeper well at steve last's home. His old well was 40 feet deep.

CHAD VAN DEYACHT:
We're at about 130 feet now, and we're drilling to 140 feet.

HACKETT:
The deeper well is required by the dropping water table that the DNR believes is responsible for the arsenic contamination.

TOM VAN DEYACHT:
I know that every year our average well gets deeper and deeper. We do go back and lower pumps on a regular basis.

HACKETT:
Wells in arsenic alley have to be enclosed in a cement casing all the way to the bottom. If the well passes through a layer of contaminated rock with arsenic, the hope is the casing will prevent the arsenic from leaching into the home's water supply. There could have been a different solution: giving up on groundwater. The town of algoma considered hooking all these homes to the city of Oshkosh's water system, which draws water from Lake Winnebago.

STEVE LAST:
Well, it was brought up. And the person on the town board was more or less almost crucified at spot, because all these newer people have new wells they paid good money for. And they don't want to invest in more money for more piping. I think at the time, it was rumored $10,000-$12,000 per household to get city water piped.

HACKETT:
In the meantime, the homes remain tied to individual wells. Pumping those wells harder may make the arsenic problem even worse.

O'CONNOR:
We try to promote water conservation. It would take quite a bit of water conservation to stop the draw down of the water table. We're estimating it's approximately two feet per year in this area. I just think in the past, we've all thought wisconsin is such a water rich state. And, this isn't Arizona. We don't have to have brown lawns. We don't have to conserve water. We're a water rich state. Well, I think it's kind of getting to be time to pay the piper.

PROTESTERS:
Perrier, go away...

HACKETT:
Right now, the controversy involving the state's supply of groundwater involves big users, like Perrier would be. But when you look at the many Wisconsin cities visited in this report, their problems didn't come from one big user. The problems came simply from growing populations of thirsty people. It's not a case of a single user that's breaking the groundwater bank. It's a problem of too many straws in the milk shake.


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