Study Finding Fecal Contamination in Southwest Wisconsin Water Wells

Southwestern Wisconsin residents are in the middle of a controversy about drinking water. There is contamination from animal and human waste, concern about protecting water supplies, questions about what regulations are needed, and even an attempt by local government to control what is said about the issue.

A recent poll of five southwestern Wisconsin counties found support for tougher rules to protect water quality. Safe, clean drinking water was ranked as very or fairly important by 89% of respondents.

When told their groundwater is vulnerable to pollution from manure and fertilizer, 80% said that is a good or excellent reason for stronger regulations. Yet 58% said they would prefer to invest in research and technology even if that delayed solving contamination problems, and 50% said they would not want rules that harm the agricultural industry. A majority said they would support political candidates who support more regulation to protect drinking water.

The poll of 601 people was conducted for the Environmental Law & Policy Center’s Action Fund and has a four-point margin of error.

The second phase of a three-year study of wells in the area recently found human fecal bacteria in several samples. The Southwest Wisconsin Groundwater and Geology study began in 2018 with tests of 840 private wells in Grant, Iowa and Lafayette counties, which form the southwestern corner of the state. About 32% of those wells showed bacterial or nitrate contamination.

From the contaminated wells found in the first phase of the study, researchers randomly selected 34 for further work. Samples from 25 of those wells showed fecal contamination, and samples from 14 of the 25 wells had fecal microbes from humans, reports Wisconsin Public Radio. A research microbiologist from the U.S. Agriculture Department, and author of the study, says it’s too early to say whether septic systems are the source of the human microbes.

The study is about half complete.

Results from the groundwater study have not appeared without their own controversy because local officials tried to control information. In early November, the Lafayette County Board considered a resolution saying results of the study would be given only to select local officials, and the resolution threatened to prosecute news reporters if they, “glean information and selectively report it in order to interpret the results for their own means.” The idea for such a resolution apparently came in an email from the chairman of another county board.

After the public questioned why officials feared the study results and asked what they were trying to hide, the resolution was amended to omit the threats against news media but also said any county supervisor or county employee who spoke about the water study without authorization would be subject to disciplinary action.

After further publicity, the board tabled the resolution without action, essentially killing the idea.


WasteWater Education, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit based in Traverse City, applied for a grant to help build consensus for a statewide wastewater code. Michigan is the only state without such a code. The grant didn’t come through, but Dendra Best, the organization’s executive director, says her board decided to pursue the process anyway although the lack of grant money will affect the work.

The group intends to arrange online conferences to increase participation in consensus building. Distance poses an obstacle in Michigan, Best says. People in the state’s Upper Peninsula face a 400- to 500-mile one-way drive to Lansing, the state capital, which makes it difficult to attend the regular meetings needed to formulate rules. Online conference technology would broaden the number of people involved, she says.

The last unsuccessful effort to create a statewide code — in 2018 — was sharply criticized by local health departments for not being transparent and not welcoming input from stakeholders.

WasteWater Education intends to follow the model used in Ohio, Best tells partners in an email. Ohio spent several years building a consensus on its rules.

“When proposed legislation is crafted, not by professional regulators, practitioners and those impacted, but by vested political interests, the purpose becomes muddied and the outcome uncertain,” she writes. “If the proposal is unworkable, unfundable, unenforceable and widely unaccepted, even if passed it will inevitably be challenged in court.”

She says her organization will continue to seek grants.

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A small community in central Michigan is working hard to help homeowners keep their onsite systems in the face of state pressure to solve water contamination issues.

In 2018, the board of Seville Township received a letter from the state Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy saying that many failing systems in the small community of Riverdale were discharging waste into the Pine River. The department wanted a permanent solution.

The township contracted with an engineering firm to look at options, a citizens committee began working with homeowners, and the state board of commissioners and the Mid-Michigan District Health Department approved resolutions asking the state “to allow residents in the village of Riverdale to keep their cost-effective and efficient private septic tanks and not waste taxpayer and property owners’ money on an unneeded $5.5 million municipal sewer system.”

Already 12 illegal connections to storm drains have been corrected, and 11 new onsite systems have been installed or are in the permitting stage, reports the Morning Sun in Alma. Township officials also propose passing a septic system ordinance that would require mandatory pumping and inspections, as well as regular testing of storm drains.

It was unclear when the state would respond to the township’s position.

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Lenawee County, southwest of Detroit, has filed lawsuits against 14 Amish families, alleging their properties do not meet codes because of insufficient wastewater systems.

Court documents say wastewater was being discharged onto the ground in violation of county health codes, reports The Daily Telegram. One Amish couple tells the newspaper they dispose of human waste by dumping it on their manure pile. The county argues these methods endanger neighbors and the general public.

Other violations alleged by the county involve the Amish use of hand pumps to draw water. A county official says wells must be installed according to state code and must send water to a household fixture.

The Amish say complying with these rules would violate their religious beliefs, and the Michigan American Civil Liberties Union has taken their case.


A proposed ordinance in Palm Bay, on the Indian River southeast of Orlando, would force everyone in the city to connect to municipal sewer service, and not everyone is happy about that.

The city’s utility wants the ordinance because it paid the cost to install the system and must maintain it regardless of how many people are connected, reports Spectrum News TV-13. The ordinance, if passed, would generate one-time revenues of about $11.5 million in impact fees and about $8 million in extension fees. Annual customer service charges would bring in about $2 million.

Palm Bay resident and onsite system owner Glenn Bennett is not pleased, and he says his neighbors feel the same way. If leaking septic systems are a problem, he says, there is a simpler solution: Fix the leak.


The Hubbard County Board doesn’t like one of the proposed amendments to the state onsite system rules, and it wrote a 5 1/2-page letter outlining its objections.

That proposed amendment from the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency would require septic tanks to be emptied of septage while they are inspected for leaks, reports the Park Rapids Enterprise. The state says a lack of minimum standards has resulted in poor inspections.

The county’s letter noted the state provided no evidence of how many leaking tanks have been missed in inspections. It also pointed out the trouble with pumping out a tank just before or during winter.

“It is common knowledge that a septic tank should not be pumped during the winter or just before winter because doing so removes the biological activity that generates heat, which keeps a tank from freezing,” the letter says. “Conversely, an empty tank is susceptible to cracking as the surrounding soil freezes and expands. … Thousands of seasonal lakeshore properties that are not occupied during the winter will be at risk.”

New Hampshire

A judge has forbidden a state representative from living at his property in the town of Belmont until he installs a proper wastewater system and complies with local and state building regulations.

The town took Rep. Michael Sylvia, R-Belmont, to court in 2018, alleging he had been living on the property for several years in violation of ordinances. Records showed the last working onsite system was damaged in a 2009 fire before Sylvia bought the property, the town says.

Sylvia is part of the Free State movement, reports The Laconia Daily Sun, whose members believe in maximum freedoms of life, liberty and property. On the day the judge ordered him not to live on the property, Sylvia wrote in his blog: “To be required to seek permission to use one’s own property, such as applying for a building permit, is contrary to our right of holding property.”

The judge withheld fines, but those could be imposed later.


The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality has changed the rules for land application of treated wastewater. Previously, municipalities or other entities disposing of treated wastewater by land application were required to set aside a certain area of land, even if some of the wastewater was diverted to other beneficial uses such as irrigation.

The new rules allow a reduction in the amount of reserved land if treated wastewater is consistently being used for a beneficial use, reports Corridor News of San Marcos. 


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