thirst for groundwater
Where water demand outpaces supply, times warrant a fresh
look at a resource considered unfathomable and unending.
Lisa Gaumnitz, Tim Asplund and Megan R. Matthews
Wisconsin Natural Resources Magazine
Published June 2004
A rotary well rig drills a residential water well. Expanding
suburban areas increasingly draw on Wisconsin's groundwater
A legacy of protecting groundwater quality now addresses
Concerns rise as the water table drops
Protecting Great Lakes waters from overuse
Costs drive community searches for options
It’s hard to conceive that Wisconsin groundwater, long
viewed as a bottomless well, could run dry in some places.
“With 1.2 million billion gallons of groundwater, as
well as the Mississippi River and two Great Lakes, there
isn’t any other state that has anything like it,” says
Jill Jonas, who directs the state’s drinking water and
groundwater program. “It’s not that we don’t have enough
water, but in a growing number of places, we’re pumping
groundwater faster than it can recharge. There are areas
in the state where streams aren’t running and where springs
aren’t flowing because the groundwater that feeds them
is being drawn dry by people.”
Humans have interrupted the water cycle. It’s creating
a vicious circle in some parts of the state and a cautionary
tale in other places that still have a favorable water
In the last century, pumping has reduced groundwater
levels by 450 feet around Milwaukee and Waukesha, by more
than 300 feet in the Green Bay area, and by about 60 feet
in Dane County. These long-term drops in groundwater levels
affect the quantity and quality of water available to
communities, private well users, and in some cases to
the lakes, rivers, wetlands and springs that depend on
them for year-round flow.
The search for new water supplies and technological fixes
is compounding these problems, revealing weaknesses in
state laws that govern the siting and operation of wells.
It’s also pitting communities and residents against one
another and the natural resources they adore.
For example, in southeastern Wisconsin, Waukesha County
is pumping 25 percent more groundwater than in 1979, contributing
to a dropping water table and drawing water from rock
layers that liberate naturally-occurring radium into drinking
water, which must be treated.
New Berlin has limited future planned industrial, commercial
and residential growth to stay within the capacity of
its existing shallow water wells.
And the Village of Mukwonago, despite an exhaustive search
for a new source of drinking water, is siphoning water
away from a rare Wisconsin wetland that harbors endangered
plant species dependent on a constant supply of high quality
But there are signs that Wisconsinites are starting to
see the connection between groundwater, surface water
and the need to better manage water uses:
Legislation passed in late March for the first time addresses
groundwater quantity issues and seeks to control well
location and pumping rates to prevent harm to trout streams
and other nearby sensitive surface waters.
A regional effort to assess, coordinate and manage drinking
water supplies is underway in southeastern Wisconsin,
where the state’s deepest drawdowns have occurred.
This year the Great Lakes governors and their Canadian
counterparts are expected to update the agreement that
protects Great Lakes waters and seeks to limit exports
of waters to communities outside the basin.
“We’re beginning to realize what we’ve been taking for
granted for a long time,” says Ted Wysocki, New Berlin’s
mayor. There has to be stewardship of groundwater and
it’s more than what we thought 30 years ago, (which was)
“let’s protect it and keep it clean.”
"The fact is that there are places where obtaining
a ready supply of water is already a challenge. Matters
will only worsen unless we make changes,” says DNR Water
Administrator Todd Ambs. "We need to make a conscious
choice to deal with these issues. The alternative is to
let a crisis or circumstances beyond our control dictate
how we manage water."
A legacy of protecting groundwater quality now addresses
Wisconsin led the nation in crafting laws to protect groundwater
quality and provide safe drinking water. State regulations
from the 1930s governed well construction, pump installation
and set the nation’s standard for providing safe, sanitary
drinking water. Laws to limit groundwater contamination
and require corrective cleanups were crafted 20 years
ago as Wisconsin faced concerns from potato pesticides,
spills and potential mining wastes, but a regulatory framework
to protect groundwater quantity did not receive much public
attention until recently.
Public interest and policymakers’ attention bubbled to
the surface in 1999-2000 when a proposed water bottling
plant in Adams County showed that state laws didn’t address
whether nearby springs, wetlands or trout streams might
be harmed if the wells were constructed to provide the
water. The case served to make people much more aware
of the connections between groundwater withdrawal, surface
water and human activities.
The earliest guidance on quantity came through the courts
in 1903. The State Supreme Court, in Huber v. Merkel,
interpreted the State Constitution to mean a landowner
could use as much groundwater as wanted, regardless of
how it affected adjoining property owners. In 1974, the
State Supreme Court overturned Huber v. Merkel and ruled
in State of Wisconsin v. Michels Pipeline Construction
that the state regulates groundwater for the common good
of all citizens. A property owner is only entitled to
“reasonable use” of groundwater, and is potentially liable
for impacts on other users. However, damages could only
be prevented or recovered after-the-fact through civil
lawsuits, and what was considered “reasonable use” might
Laws passed in the post-war building boom of 1945 tested
whether communities could protect drinking water supplies
by requiring approvals before sinking high capacity wells
near any municipal well. These private “high cap” wells
-- capable of withdrawing more than 70 gallons a minute
or more than 100,000 gallons a day -- were seen as potential
threats to the public drinking water supplies serving
growing cities. There was clear intent to ensure a safe
drinking water supply and to separate subdivisions from
enterprises like vegetable canneries, papermakers and
breweries that might vie for the same water. Today, more
than 9,500 high capacity wells are in service statewide
providing water for agricultural irrigation, municipal
drinking water, industries, schools, institutions and
mobile home parks.
Some other states –Florida, Minnesota, Oregon and Washington
– have modernized their statutes to recognize that surface
water and groundwater are hydraulically connected and
ought to be legally linked for their mutual protection.
The Groundwater Protection Act passed last March expands
DNR authority over groundwater wells by requiring advance
notice before any wells are constructed. The law directs
DNR to review environmental consequences of proposed high
capacity wells in certain situations:
within 1,200 feet of any surface water identified as
an Outstanding Resource Water (like a pristine lake),
an Exceptional Resource Water” (like a wild river) or
a well that has a water loss of more than 95 percent of
the water withdrawn (like a beverage bottler);
any well that may significantly affect a spring that has
a minimum flow of one cubic foot per second for at least
80 percent of the time.
This gives the Department of Natural Resources the authority
to deny well applications, yet flexibility to allow wells
in whole or part if the environment is not threatened.
Importantly, the law also creates a committee that will
recommend what ought to be done in larger drawdown areas
by the end of 2006, and will review how the law is working
by the end of 2007. If the group doesn't provide substantive
recommendations, the law give DNR authority to write rules
making needed changes, Ambs says.
The law doesn't protect all of the water resources that
need protection, "but it's a start," Ambs says,
and it's one that enjoyed broad, bipartisan support: the
bill passed 99-0 in the Assembly and 31-1 in the Senate.
"The Governor and legislative leaders recognized
the importance of protecting our groundwater supplies
with this legislation," Ambs says. "It was a
significant first step, but much more work needs to be
Concerns rise as the water table drops
The strains of meeting growing water demand from a sprawling
population are starting to show. Statewide water use has
increased 33 percent in the last 15 years and water tables
are plummeting in many urban areas as our thirst for more
water outstrips our ability to provide it.
Perhaps no region faces this wellspring of challenges
like southeast Wisconsin, where populations grew by 212
percent, 181 percent and 255 percent respectively in Ozaukee,
Washington and Waukesha counties from 1950-90. In these
suburban areas, groundwater use rose 29 percent from 72
to 93 million gallons a day.
Milwaukee draws its water from Lake Michigan, but the
bulk of the communities and industries farther inland
from the coast tap into a shallow aquifer, a deep sandstone
aquifer or both. Both aquifers are being pumped heavily,
but the deep aquifer is being depleted far faster than
percolating rain or snowmelt can replace it.
“There are quantity issues from declining water levels
and overpumping,” says Steve Schultz, a water supply department
head at Ruekert & Mielke Inc., a consulting engineering
firm in Waukesha. “That forces communities to look at
other sources of supply, including shallow aquifers and
surface water from Lake Michigan. Many communities in
southeastern Wisconsin also use deep wells that have a
problem with radionuclides. It’s very costly to treat
this contamination, and in many cases it’s cheaper to
look for alternative sources,” Schultz said.
Mukwonago and New Berlin are among several communities
facing a December 2006 deadline for reducing radium levels
in their drinking water below a five picocuries per liter
limit. Their proposed solutions illustrate the complexity
of resolving the economic, environmental, public health
and political issues that come into play.
The Village of Mukwonago sought to solve its radium problem
by drilling shallow wells. An extensive search revealed
that the most productive zone was right next to the Vernon
Marsh State Wildlife Area, raising concerns that long-term
pumping might affect several fens and one calcareous fen
-- a rare wetland type. Current laws would not prevent
the well siting, so DNR water supply staff negotiated
with the village to voluntarily keep its pumping to a
minimum and to install monitoring wells. “We are very
fortunate that Mukwonago has been willing to work with
us,” says Sharon Schaver DNR Southeast Region hydrogeologist.
“This is the best we can do with the laws we have."
The Village of East Troy needed more capacity and couldn't
drill a deep sandstone well due to radium, so it looked
for a shallow gravel aquifer. A consultant found a site
about a quarter-mile from Lake Beulah in the Town of East
Troy. The local lake management district objected, citing
that Lake Beulah and a cattail marsh on shore would be
dried-up by the new well. DNR was concerned that reduced
flow into Lake Beulah could reduce flow into Mukwonago
River and affect prime fish habitat.
In response to these concerns, the village conducted
extensive groundwater monitoring that showed minimal effect
on the marsh and lake. The village also offered to compensate
private well owners that may be affected by the well.
At 37 square miles, New Berlin is Wisconsin’s sixth largest
city. It’s cleaved by a sub-continental divide – some
water runs toward the Great Lakes and the other part of
town drains toward the Mississippi River. The city – overcoming
initial reluctance from Milwaukee Common Council members
who had hard feelings over jobs and residents being lured
to the suburbs – successfully contracted to obtain Lake
Michigan water for that portion of the city within the
Lake Michigan basin.
Wysocki hopes that New Berlin can receive permission
from Great Lakes charter members to divert lake water
to serve the other portion of the city as well.
“All of our sewage goes back to Milwaukee Metropolitan
Sewer District and the basin, so we believe we have a
legitimate claim that we are returning substantially the
amount of water we use to the basin itself,” Wysocki says.
The final portion of the city would be served by existing
shallow wells. The master plan for future growth aligns
development with the water resources below.
“We began to realize that as we continue to develop,
access to drinking water becomes an economic interest.
It makes good business sense to keep an asset you need
to continue developing,” Wysocki says.
In all three cases, -- Mukwonago, East Troy and New Berlin
-- the communities voluntarily went beyond what state
law requires to protect surface waters and other water
users. Such regard for the common good isn’t mandatory,
and that’s one reason why business, agriculture, environment
and others are coming together to back changes in how
Wisconsin manages its water.
“We hope to have a regional approach to managing groundwater
to avoid fights in adjoining communities for limited supplies,”
says Chad Czarkowski, DNR drinking water and groundwater
expert in southeastern Wisconsin.
States have to plan rather than react when regulating
groundwater use, Schultz says. Many Western states buy
and sell water rights. Those rights become a commodity
to be traded rather than a shared resource for public
betterment. “We hope Wisconsin won’t go down that path,”
Schultz says. “When people can own water rights, they
stop working for the public interest and start looking
out for their pocketbooks.”
Protecting Great Lakes waters from overuse
The Great Lakes shoreline remains another frontier for
defining collective rights to water. As growing communities
look for new sources of water, it’s only natural that
those near the coast view tapping those massive waters
as a solution.
Drawing water from the lakes brings its own environmental
and engineering challenges. Nearshore waters on the Great
Lakes are susceptible to contaminants in runoff, untreated
stormwater, atmospheric pollutants and the byproducts
of wastewater treatment.
Treating Great Lakes water to make it potable is expensive.
Keeping the intakes free of zebra mussels and other organisms
is surmountable, but requires constant maintenance. Moreover,
despite the vastness of the Great Lakes, water demands
are increasing from every community on its borders in
the United States and Canada.
To better manage the lakes collectively, governors from
the eight states and premiers from the two Canadian provinces
bordering the Great Lakes signed a Great Lakes Charter
in 1985 setting guidelines and principles for managing
Great Lakes water. The Charter sets a communal pledge
to protect, conserve and restore the waters and the natural
resources that depend on the Great Lakes. A key provision
of the Charter aimed to regulate large water withdrawals
and diversions from metropolitan centers bordering the
lakes. A supplementary agreement, called Annex 2001 includes
proposed provisions clarifying how, where and when water
can be removed or diverted from the lakes, or from groundwater
that feeds them. Those provisions are scheduled for public
review this summer.
In spite of their vast size, both water quality and water
levels can change quickly and unpredictably on the Great
Lakes. Natural weather variations and long-term water
level cycles compound water diversions by shoreland cities.
Low lake levels the last few years left bluffs, shorelines,
docks, piers and harbors high and dry.
Inland wells are taking their toll too. A recent study
by the Wisconsin Geological and Natural History Survey
and the U.S. Geological Survey shows that in the last
60 years well water withdrawals throughout southeastern
Wisconsin, Illinois and Michigan were substantial enough
to slow and reverse groundwater flow in some areas. In
the region between Milwaukee and Waukesha County, groundwater
models show that pumping water from the deep aquifers
has begun to alter groundwater flow patterns extending
to Lake Michigan, the Illinois border and western Waukesha
County. Indeed, about 7.5 percent of the groundwater that
used to flow toward Lake Michigan never reaches the coast;
it’s drawn into wells. Most of that water eventually reaches
Lake Michigan through storm sewers and as treated wastewater,
“but the location, timing and quality of the return flow
is different than what it was under natural conditions,”
the USGS report concludes.
In an era when human demands can change the flow of groundwater
from the Great Lakes toward inland communities, each state
and Canadian province bordering the Great Lakes must consider
what sorts of water diversions should be allowed to provide
water for drinking water, agricultural and industrial
Costs drive community searches for options
Some communities are looking to technology to reduce costs
of providing water. One method public water utilities
are considering is a system called ASR (Aquifer Storage
and Recovery). The communities of Green Bay and Oak Creek
have both tested ASR as a response to increased demand
for water and dropping water tables.
Essentially, ASR occurs in “cycles.” Rather than storing
water in reservoirs or towers, drinkable water is injected
into underground wells, stored until needed and then drawn
from the aquifer for public use in each cycle. Costs to
construct an ASR well can be about half the traditional
costs to build water reservoirs or elevated water towers,
but they are still substantial -- $200,000 - $800,000
for each million gallons per day of storage capacity.
Costs are less to convert existing unused wells than to
drill new storage wells.
Until now, Wisconsin’s policy has been that groundwater
should remain untouched — the idea of injecting water,
wastes or any other substances (including the chlorine
in treated drinking water) into an aquifer was not an
option. As a consequence, state drinking water regulators
took a go-slow approach to such proposals. Still, given
added costs to meet additional Safe Drinking Water Act
(SDWA) standards, some public utilities are looking for
new ways to manage their water supply. In order to consider
ASR, communities must prove three things: first, that
the water they are putting into the aquifer meets drinking
water standards and comes directly from a municipal system;
second, that the water they take out of the aquifer meets
drinking water standards before it is distributed; and
third, that they can comply with state groundwater standards.
By state statute, no new chemicals can be introduced into
Results are mixed. Both communities successfully stored
and recovered water; however, monitoring showed elevated
levels of substances that may eventually violate drinking
With stricter drinking water requirements coming in the
near future, will the Department of Natural Resources
allow systems to use new less-tested techniques to provide
reliable drinking water supplies?
“We give them the opportunity to try new technologies
and methods where there is ample scientific and practical
evidence that they meet drinking water standards,” says
Don Swailes, chief of DNR’s Drinking Water Quality Section.
"If they want to try something that does not have
a proven track record, they have to prove in a number
of ways that it will protect public health, and protect
Jonas sympathizes with communities facing the considerable
expense of treating drinking water, but she doesn’t think
cost should trump all other concerns. “We have to start
asking ourselves, is it that important to have green lawns
when we’re pumping water so hard that it’s getting contaminated
with radium and arsenic? If we want to have quality springs,
streams and drinking water, we have to start using water
responsibly rather than hoping there’s some technological
fix. We’re wasting water and we have to have greater respect
“My grandmother never had running water in her home,”
Jonas said. “For drinking water, she filled a bucket from
a hand pump that sat on the kitchen counter. People knew
how deep the water was then. They thought about where
they were putting their wastes. I wonder if as a society
we’ve lost some of our appreciation of where our water
Jonas, who grew up on a farm in southwestern Wisconsin,
cherishes the memory of sipping water from a metal cup
that hung in the spring house, cutting watercress just
below the springs and directly sipping from Castle Rock
Springs. “These are precious resources that we should
hang onto,” she says. “People in the future deserve a
chance to see and experience these same plentiful resources.”