Pollution monitoring needed for Nelsonville’s drinking water

Dec 9, 2022 | Agriculture, Drinking Water, Groundwater

Earlier this month, River Alliance of Wisconsin submitted an editorial to the Stevens Point Journal in reaction to the Portage County Executive’s veto of funding for groundwater monitoring wells in the small, rural community of Nelsonville, Wisconsin.


Portage County board members who voted to approve funding for water quality monitoring wells in Nelsonville did the right thing for the health and well-being of homeowners facing dangerously high nitrate contamination in their drinking water.

Portage County Executive John Pavelski was wrong to veto the board’s decision. His veto is unfortunate for the families who must rely on bottled water, expensive filtration systems, and who suffer from health problems due to agricultural pollution in their wells. Read more about what happened in Portage County in the Stevens Point Journal and via WAOW-TV ABC 9.

Nelsonville residents have asked for help for years. But board members who supported the funding did so under pressure from lobbyists from Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce, Wisconsin Dairy Alliance, and Venture Dairy Cooperative who sent a last-minute, threatening letter to the board suggesting they do not have the right or power to fund monitoring wells. We recently shared an analysis of their letter on our blog.

These industry lobbyists do not represent all farmers or Wisconsin businesses. They work in the interest of the biggest names in chemical manufacturing and large-scale agricultural production. Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce claims 3,800 business members, but there are over 400,000 small businesses alone in Wisconsin. Wisconsin Dairy Alliance only represents the largest factory farms in the state. These lobbying groups do not represent average farmers, industry, or even significant portions of their sectors.  

These lobbyists will stop at nothing – including pushing bogus legal arguments and threats of litigation – to prevent sensible measures that protect the health of people and our environment. Their aim is to make sure polluters are not held accountable for their actions. Indeed, they are even opposed to monitoring pollution.

Chronic nitrate consumption is linked to thyroid disease and cancer. Pregnant women and infants are particularly at risk of nitrate poisoning. Groundwater monitoring wells are a basic tool for tracking the sources of nitrate contamination. Nelsonville residents are among the tens of thousands of people in our state who do not have reliable access to safe drinking water in their homes.

Since this has become one of the most pervasive forms of groundwater pollution in Wisconsin, other municipalities should take notice and be prepared for WMC to try to limit their local control. 

Nothing in state statute prohibits the county from putting in monitoring wells. It is not only permissible for the county to fund pollution monitoring, but it is the responsibility of the government to protect the health of residents. This clearly fits within our state laws. 

The people of Portage County want leaders to take actions that protect Wisconsin’s water. In the 2021 spring elections, 77% of voters in the county supported a Clean Water Now advisory referendum that asked “Should the State of Wisconsin establish a right to clean water to protect human health, the environment, and the diverse cultural and natural heritage of Wisconsin?” 

It takes a strong leader to resist pressure by private interests in order to protect those who are most vulnerable. Portage County and rural communities like Nelsonville deserve much better, starting with drinkable water.

– Bill Davis, Senior Legal Analyst

Learn more

PBS Wisconsin’s Here and Now December 2, 2022 episode on Nelsonville’s drinking water (part one of two)

Nelsonville residents’ testimonials on drinking water and health concerns

Story: Katy Bailey’s fight for clean water


This message is made possible by generous donors who believe people have the power to protect and restore water. Become a member of River Alliance of Wisconsin today.