Three New Studies Aim to Protect and Better Manage Wisconsin’s Water Wealth

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Radium, Which Is Source of Waukesha’s Water Troubles, Is One Focus

New research projects are selected through the Wisconsin Groundwater Coordinating Council. The council has a 32-year track record of funding scientists to find the best ways to better manage water quantity and quality, all while avoiding duplication of effort among five state agencies and the UW System.
Credit: WRI

July 28, 2016

By Moira Harrington

This month, three new groundwater research projects get underway on three University of Wisconsin System campuses and through the University of Wisconsin Extension, and will involve multiple regions of the state.

In a year that has seen Flint, Mich.’s, water system contaminated by lead and Waukesha, Wis.’s, ongoing hurdles to providing clean and healthy water to citizens in the face of radium contamination, the spotlight is on water quantity and quality.

The new research is funded by the University of Wisconsin Water Resources Institute (WRI). The work is also the result of the state’s Groundwater Coordinating Council (GCC). “The GCC is unique in the nation,” said Jennifer Hauxwell, WRI’s assistant director for research. “The statutorily established GCC has a 32-year track record of success in ensuring Wisconsin’s water quality and quantity meets residents’ economic, agricultural and public health needs.”

The GCC is made up of state programs that have a role in understanding or managing Wisconsin’s groundwater resources—the University of Wisconsin System and the state departments of Natural Resources; Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection; Transportation; Health Services; and Safety and Professional Services. The University of Wisconsin System’s portion of the program operates through the WRI.

Hauxwell continued, “While Wisconsin’s water wealth is one of the state’s largest assets, there are significant challenges related to water quality, quantity and management. The UW research projects tackle a few of the state’s most relevant groundwater challenges and were selected through a rigorous joint review process that incorporates input from world experts as well as a panel of Wisconsin groundwater researchers and managers.”

When a municipal water system is contaminated by radium, water managers must find ways to protect public health.
Credit: David Nevala for WRI

Details on the research include:

· Throughout the north-central United States, including 95 public water systems in Wisconsin, people rely on the Midwestern, Cambrian-Ordovician aquifer system for water. It is a system contaminated, to various degrees, by the carcinogen radium. A recent U.S. Geological Survey study pegged this aquifer and another, the Ozark Plateau, as having the highest frequency of radium occurrence among the 15 major aquifer systems in the country. Municipal water systems ensure safe drinking water in their service area by adopting numerous procedures to address the problem. Radium contamination is why Waukesha was successful in its petition to divert Great Lakes water for drinking since the city’s own groundwater endangered public health. The source of groundwater’s radium contamination in any location is unknown so anticipation and planning to avoid it is difficult. An investigator at the University

of Wisconsin-Madison and one from the University of Wisconsin-Extension will conduct research to develop a relationship between sediment and aquifer geochemistry and the concentration of radium in groundwater.

· Two researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee will assess the effect of nutrients on a water system’s bacterial community. They will use a well field near the upper Fox River in Waukesha as their test site. The bacterial community within a water system typically fulfills many functions, including naturally remediating contaminants and mobilizing heavy metals. The study will offer insight into the changing dynamics around high-nutrient locations such as septic systems, heavily fertilized farm fields, confined animal feeding operations and naturally remediated cleanup sites. This will also shed light on the fate and transport of pharmaceuticals. The scientists note this will be one of the few studies to look at how the groundwater’s makeup responds to nutrient input in the field as opposed to in a lab. While the study will take place in Waukesha, the findings will apply throughout the state.

· Two researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point will sample wells in Portage, Marathon and Shawano counties to track possible changes in uranium levels in groundwater as nitrates-nitrogen is added. Those additions, which occur through septic or fertilizer inputs, could enhance the concentrations of uranium. Uranium is a naturally occurring element in groundwater in some central and northeastern Wisconsin communities because it is present in granite rocks. It is a carcinogen, affecting mainly the kidneys. Researchers will also track water movement through areas that contain uranium. They will partner with the Portage County Health and Human Services Department and other health services in central Wisconsin to identify and sample the wells and disseminate the test results.

Six additional projects will be funded in this two-year cycle by the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR). Those project were part of the joint GCC review that ensures coordination of water-research efforts and represents an effective use of tax dollars to address water needs.