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NECEDAH, Wis. - Residents in Juneau County and southern Wood County already know they're not supposed to drink their well water - but what they don't know is if, or when, that will change.
In May, county employees ran tests at 104 homes, mostly in Juneau County, and found 42 percent of the water samples had more than 10 milligrams per liter of nitrates. Scientists consider that to be the maximum considered safe for drinking. Just as many samples had more than 20 milligrams per liter.
Kevin Masarik, groundwater educational specialist at the Center for Watershed Science and Education, University of Wisconsin Extension at Stevens Point, says nitrates are generally caused by fertilizer, animal or human waste. It's difficult to pinpoint the exact source, though many suspect it's agriculture. "How do we develop farm practices that are profitable, but are maybe more sustainable when it comes to water quality? At the same time, we have to figure out ways to get people safe water in the short term. Sometimes, that might be looking at drilling new wells," says Masarik.
Too much nitrate consumption can cause a variety of health effects, including what's known as "blue baby syndrome." Health officials from local, state and federal agencies have been advising residents to take precautions for now, including drinking bottled water.
More than 100 people attended a town hall in Necedah, where Masarik was among the panelists offering them advice. One option is drilling a new well - at a cost of around $7,000. Another is treating the water with special filters at around $800. But Masarik says they are nowhere near a permanent solution. "Even if we are successful, it could take years or decades to notice some sort of measurable improvement in groundwater quality where these people have their wells installed," says Masarik.
Masarik says farmers can do everything right and according to standards and still cause nitrate contamination. County officials say testing is ongoing and those in the affected areas who are interested in having their water tested should contact their local health department.