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Every Wednesday at 6:45 a.m., 8:45 a.m., and 5:45 p.m., we turn back the clock on WXPR with local historian Gary Entz to find out what life in the Northwoods used to be like. This is part of a new initiative by WXPR to tell the history and culture of northern Wisconsin.You can keep track of A Northwoods Moment in History and all of WXPR's local features on the WXPR Local Features podcast, wherever you get your podcasts.

Rhinelander's Water Quality In The 20th Century

Wisconsin Historical Society

The issue of contaminated water is an ongoing topic of concern in the city of Rhinelander, but it isn’t a new problem. Historian Gary Entz tells the story of contamination issues in the past and how Rhinelander came to get its water from wells.

Recently Northwoods citizens in and around the city of Rhinelander have had legitimate concerns about the quality of drinking water in the region. While PFAS contamination is a relatively new development, apprehensions about Rhinelander's drinking water go back a long way.

Rhinelander’s water is impure, at least that is what a sanitary engineer from the Wisconsin State Board of Health had to say in 1922. From the beginning, the city of Rhinelander siphoned its drinking water directly from the Wisconsin River. The water contained all the runoff from upstream logging operations and was not safe to drink. An inspection in 1916 left the city council with a stern warning that it needed to act soon. But nothing was done until the flu epidemic of 1919 finally convinced the city council that it needed to do something. In that year the council voted to spend $1000 to drill some experimental wells and to build a chlorination plant to purify existing river water. Of course, chlorine has its limitations, as the city quickly found out. Many cities across Wisconsin were building chlorination plants, and by 1920 there was a shortage of chlorine. Unable to secure enough chlorine to purify the water, the city health department had the water tested and found it to be in a “deplorable condition.” Rhinelander residents were advised to boil water before drinking it.

All of this should have served as a wake-up call to the city council, but it didn’t. When Mr. Baker, the sanitary engineer from the State Board of Health, visited in 1922, he was appalled at the lack of interest Rhinelander residents demonstrated in their own drinking water supply. Mr. Baker tried to explain how bacteria that caused water-borne diseases such as typhoid fever was present in polluted water. Treating the water using the chlorine method worked well to kill the bacteria, but it did nothing to filter them out. “You are eating the dead ones instead of the live ones,” said Baker. Chlorine “does not improve the physical quality of the water, it only kills the bugs that are present in it.”

Baker’s admonitions fell on deaf ears. A bond issue to make the necessary improvements to Rhinelander’s water supply was defeated.

Contaminated water remained an issue in Rhinelander throughout the 1920s. By 1930, state officials had become so frustrated with the stubbornness of Rhinelander’s city council that it had to threaten a lawsuit to force council members into action. This worked, sort of. In the late summer of 1930, the city council voted to spend $110,000 to improve the city’s water. Opponents threatened to obtain an injunction. Meanwhile, Rhinelander began reporting cases of typhoid in the city but questioned whether drinking water was the source.

In 1931 the debate turned to whether the money would be better spent on drilling deep wells or building a filtration plant. Bids to drill wells and a water tower came in at a cost lower than that to construct a filtration plant. The city council voted to go with wells, which is why Rhinelander gets its water from deep wells today.

In addition to being a historian and educator, Gary R. Entz serves on WXPR's Board of Directors and writes WXPR's A Northwoods Moment in History which is heard Wednesdays on WXPR's Morning Edition and All Things Considered.