Nitrate Contamination of Well Water

In a paper for Political Science 272: Introduction to Public Policy (UW), Julia Kessel wrote a hypothetical memo to the Wisconsin State Legislature that was advocating for reform in response to nitrate contamination of well water in the state.

Summary

The well water in Wisconsin is heavily contaminated by nitrate. This is dangerous for residents who rely on the water and has harmful long term health impacts. By passing bill LRB-5062/1, citizens in Wisconsin would get the help they need in eliminating nitrate in their water and preventing future water contamination. This memo will go through the importance of enacting a change, a few solutions, and how to implement this solution to make the largest impact for Wisconsin residents.

Nitrate in groundwater is a fairly common problem in the state of Wisconsin, especially in wells. In many rural areas of the state, families, communities and farms use wells as their drinking water. But, if contaminated with nitrate, the water can cause long term, possibly fatal health effects such as blue baby syndrome, cancer and birth defects (Waste & Water Digest). In a 2019 sample of 301 private wells in Southwest Wisconsin, approximately 16% of the wells came back with nitrate levels that were significantly over the health standards limit of nitrate in water. About 7 in 10 people in Wisconsin get their water from groundwater (Wisconsin Water Library) and 3 of those 10 from wells, making nitrate contamination a problem that affects a large portion of the Wisconsin population. The contamination of well water by nitrate in Wisconsin is a problem that needs to be addressed because of its widespread and long term harm to individuals in the state.

Issue Analysis

The contamination of well water has evolved to be as harmful and widespread as it is for a few main reasons. When wells are constructed incorrectly or in an area that is not suitable for them, they are more prone to leaks and damage that allows the nitrate to contaminate the water (Minnesota Department of Health) through the well walls. If the nitrate contamination in the well water is not addressed quickly, it will continue to harm residents of Wisconsin and lead to long-term harmful effects from the contaminated water. The people most affected by contamination in wells are Wisconsinites living in rural, less populated areas because they more often rely on wells for their drinking water. In Wisconsin, almost one fourth  of the population, or 1.5 million people (Rural Health Information Hub), are from those rural areas so, as their representatives, they make up a big portion of the constituency. Enacting change around this topic needs to be based on the ideas of urgency and efficiency. Since nitrate contamination is an immediate threat to a large portion of the Wisconsin population, a decision needs to be made quickly so that the problem does not harm more people or get worse than it already is.

Options

There are a few policy options that could be successful in combating nitrate contamination in Wisconsin well water. The LRB-5062/1 Well Compensation Grant Program bill (Novak) is one policy option that would work well to reduce the amount of nitrate in Wisconsin well water. This program gives grants to private citizens who have wells that are contaminated with nitrate. The revision to this bill calls for more funding for this program as well as a prioritization system that puts wells with high nitrate concentration first to receive funding. The bill would prioritize the most severe and urgent cases of nitrate contamination but still help the less severe cases with the remaining funds (Novak). One negative aspect about this bill is that it would cost the government (and therefore the taxpayers) an extensive amount of money. By granting more funds to the LRB-5062/1 bill/program,the amount of money available to this program would be increased by $1,000,000. This program would be implemented by getting the extra funding and then start going through the program applicants. Another option for combatting the nitrate contamination is to create a resource similar to what the state of Minnesota uses: a well management program. This online resource contains a lot of helpful, general information about nitrate in wells such as health risks, how to test the nitrate levels, preventing contamination, addressing contamination and how contamination occurs (Minnesota Department of Health). It also links many helpful websites such as professionals who can help fix wells and what type of wells are most at risk. Some positive aspects of this option are that it is incredibly inexpensive and easy for residents to use. One drawback is that it does not actually do anything for residents; they still have to solve the problem themselves. This would be implemented by the Water Quality Task Force and they would create a similar resource to the Minnesota one for Wisconsin residents. The Wisconsin State Legislature has the authority to make both of these options work either by passing the bill or by delegating to the Water Quality Task force.

Recommendation and Conclusion

Bill LRB-5062/1 presents the best way for nitrate contamination to be solved for wells in Wisconsin. Based on the criteria of urgency and efficiency, this bill meets both aspects. Since this bill prioritizes wells that have the highest nitrate concentration, it takes urgency into account when handing out grants. It is also very efficient because the bill would have one staff member who dedicates all of their time to giving out the grants and helping those who applied or received grants. This streamlines the process and makes it as quick and easy as possible. The course of action for bill LRB-5062/1 is to get it passed by the Wisconsin State Legislature and then begin to implement it as described in the bill. This bill is the best way to combat nitrate contamination.

By passing the LRB-5062/1 bill, the nitrate contamination in wells in Wisconsin will be handled in the quickest and most efficient way possible. Nitrate contamination affects almost a third of all Wisconsinites and as their representatives, this issue should be of utmost priority. Once solved, Wisconsinites will be able to fix their wells and have access to safe, clean drinking water.

References

“Groundwater Contamination in Three Wisconsin Counties.” Water & Wastes Digest, 3 Jan. 2019, www.wwdmag.com/groundwater-treatment-sampling-systems/groundwater-contamination-three-wisconsin-counties. 

Nitrate in Well Water – EH: Minnesota Department of Health, www.health.state.mn.us/communities/environment/water/wells/waterquality/nitrate.html. 

Novak, Todd, and Katrina Shankland. Wisconsin State Legislature, 8 Jan. 2020, legis.wisconsin.gov/2019/committees/assembly/STF-WQ/media/1192/08vos_water_quality_task_force_report-3.pdf. 

Wisconsin Water Library, waterlibrary.aqua.wisc.edu/water-facts/. “Rural Health Information Hub.” Rural Health for Wisconsin Introduction, 2019, www.ruralhealthinfo.org/states/wisconsin.