A Bird’s-Eye View: (Some of) Wisconsin’s Pressing Water Problems

Apr 8, 2020 | Agriculture, Clear Water Farms, Drinking Water, Water Policy, Water Quality Task Force

This article originally appeared in the Winter 2020 WaterWays newsletterDownload a PDF of the full Newsletter.

Wisconsin is fortunate to have an abundance of water resources. However, communities around the state are facing very serious water issues that negatively impact public health, our clean water economy, tourism, and recreation.

Some of the top water concerns were brought to light during the 2019 Speaker’s Water Quality Task Force hearings across the state. Hundreds of people, state agencies and local government representatives testified about water quality issues in Wisconsin.

Frequent issues addressed at the hearings included: PFAS, lead, nitrate and nonpoint pollution. Here are some basics on some of Wisconsin’s pressing water problems, with the caveat that this list is not exhaustive. There are more water issues—from flooding to mining pollution to high-cap wells to aquatic invasive species—that River Alliance will continue to address in our ongoing work.


PFAS, aka “forever chemicals,” have made the headlines recently because they have been found in drinking and surface water in Wisconsin. Marinette, Peshtigo, Rhinelander and Madison are some of the communities that have found PFAS in their water.

Per- and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances (PFAS) are a family of 3,000+ human-made chemicals that have been used in commercial and industrial applications since the 1940s. PFAS are harmful chemicals that build up in the body and environment. PFAS are found in non-stick coatings, waterproof fabrics, some firefighting foams, food packaging, and other products.

Studies in humans have shown many health effects from PFAS including decreased fertility in women, increased risk of high blood pressure and pre-eclampsia in pregnant women, increased risk of thyroid disease, and lower infant birth weights. The main human exposures to PFAS are from ingestion, including drinking contaminated water, eating food with PFAS-containing packaging, and eating fish caught from PFAS-contaminated water.

Legislation and rules have been proposed to begin to address this large problem. These policies are intended to set drinking, surface, and groundwater standards for some PFAS chemicals; study the human and ecological impacts; and provide funding for the collection of firefighting foam. These are a start to understand and clean up PFAS contamination. However, we need to make sure Wisconsin actually passes standards that are protective of human health. A lengthy rule-making process has begun. The Evers Administration is proposing a standard, based on independent peer-reviewed research, of 20 ppt (parts per trillion). Industry is already pushing for a less protective standard.

You can learn more about PFAS from two of the organizations that have taken the lead on PFAS, Clean Wisconsin and S.O.H20 (find this group on Facebook). And, see the film “Dark Waters.”


Lead is a naturally-occurring metal that can be found in paint, soil, plumbing components and gasoline. There is no known safe level of lead exposure. Exposure in early childhood has been linked to decreased IQ and behavioral disorders. Today, there are an estimated 200,000 lead service lines remaining in communities across Wisconsin and 6% of children in Wisconsin have tested positive for lead poisoning.

The Water Quality Task Force recommendations did not include new legislation related to lead. The report did endorse two bills, The ”SCHOOL Acts,” that require public and private schools, child care providers, and camps to test their drinking water for lead and take action when the results are above the federal drinking water standards. These bills are an important step toward protecting children’s health. However, we also need more funding to remove and replace lead lateral pipes to protect Wisconsinites from dangerous lead exposure via drinking water.


Nitrates are often found in groundwater due to fertilizer and manure applied to crop fields.The Wisconsin DNR estimates that more than 40,000 private wells and 300 public water systems exceed the nitrate health standard of 10mg/L. The estimated cost of abandoning and replacing these wells is $440M.

When nitrates get into our drinking water, they can pose health risks. Nitrates can impact the blood’s ability to carry oxygen. Drinking water with high levels of nitrates is unsafe for everyone, but especially for babies and pregnant women. High levels of nitrates can cause “blue baby syndrome” in infants. Some studies suggest that high levels of nitrates may also cause birth defects, thyroid problems, and cancer.

Solutions need to address the source of the pollution. The Wisconsin DNR is implementing and developing new targeted performance standards in regions of the state that have high contamination levels. The Water Quality Task Force also proposed a new nitrogen optimization pilot program that provides grants to farmers to implement projects that reduce nitrogen loading. Results may take years, but these changes will have a lasting impact on water quality.

For homeowners, the first step is to find out if you are in a high-risk area. Contact your local health department. They can connect you to programs to test your drinking water. You may qualify for funding through the state’s well compensation program.


A lot of water contamination comes from single “point” sources, like pipes discharging pollutants from factories or wastewater plants. However, the leading cause of water pollution in the US is “nonpoint source” pollution, which comes from diffuse places, like farm fields and street gutters, but collects in surface waterways and groundwater to cause serious problems. This sort of pollution is more difficult to control and is much less stringently regulated. Agriculture is the largest contributor to nonpoint pollution in Wisconsin. Farmers land-use decisions disturb the soil and add fertilizers and chemicals which wash off into surface waters.

Controlling and regulating agricultural nonpoint pollution was a major theme during the Water Quality Task Force hearings. The Task Force has since proposed several bills that will provide support for farmers and county staff to address the problems. These include the “Assistance to Farmers Bill,” which supports grazing practices, cover crop adoption, water stewardship certifications for farms, and producer-led watershed protection grants.

River Alliance believes this legislation is a positive step toward agricultural nonpoint pollution control. Among the bills is $250,000 of funding to carry out Alliance for Water Stewardship certifications on individual farms across the state. This certification is the one River Alliance’s Clear Water Farms program uses. The funding will help us to bring more farms into the Clear Water Farms program, which is designed to build support in the farming community for increased water stewardship practices. These bills are far from a final answer to Wisconsin’s agricultural nonpoint pollution challenges, but they’re a real start.

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