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Groundwater in the Chippewa Valley, including in St. Croix and Pierce Counties, is very contaminated and is getting worse from all the septic systems.

High nitrate levels are the red flag telling us that the well water is contaminated. Nitrates come from manure, fertilizer and septic systems.

It is time for the counties and towns to develop an infrastructure for housing developments for the health and safety of the residents and to prevent the groundwater from being contaminated.

In housing developments where the lots are closely spaced, wells could become contaminated with septic drainfield water in 10 or fewer years. Water from septic drainfields contain pharmaceuticals, nitrates, heavy metals from pigments in cosmetics and toxic organic chemicals from cleaners. Viruses may move into the groundwater through septic drainfields and may survive for long periods of time.

A study of viruses from wells near septic systems in Wisconsin showed hepatitis A, Norwalk-like viruses, rotavirus and enterovirus.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency states that septic systems are the number one polluter of groundwater in the United States. EPA also states that septic system densities greater than one system per 16 acres are regions of potential groundwater contamination.

A Chippewa County groundwater quality inventory by the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point in 2016 showed some wells to be contaminated from septic drainfield water. Sixty wells with nitrates ranging from two to 32 milligrams per liter were analyzed to determine where the nitrate came from. he samples were analyzed for agricultural practices (pesticides) and septic systems (caffeine and artificial sweeteners).

Agricultural and septic were found in 15 wells; agricultural in 13 wells; septic in 19 wells and 13 wells had neither. The Dunn County Health Department did a nitrate study, which showed that very high nitrates exist throughout the county. Chippewa Falls wells became contaminated with nitrate, and in 1999 $2.3 million was spent on a nitrate removal plant.

The elected people have the responsibility to protect the health and safety of the people. Now that we know that the groundwater is very contaminated, and an infrastructure needs to be developed before housing developments are established in rural areas. People moving into these developments have no idea that their well could become contaminated from septic drainfield water within 10 years.

The Town of Red Cedar is considering a housing development for 53 lots. If there is a well and septic system on each lot, 53 wells and septic systems will cost over a million dollars. In ten or less years the wells could become contaminated with septic drainfield water. It is estimated that in a housing development like this one, sixty percent of the groundwater recharge could come from septic drainfield water.

We also need to look at existing housing developments to determine if the well water is high in nitrate. An infrastructure needs to be brought into these existing developments where the nitrate is high.

West of Oshkosh, the Town of Algoma’s groundwater became contaminated and the town developed an infrastructure to provide safe water to its residents.

In the Chippewa Valley and adjacent counties the time to do something is now.

An infrastructure consisting of sanitary sewer and drinking water needs to be brought into rural housing developments for the health of the people and also to protect the groundwater from being further contaminated.

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Neil Koch is a retired hydrologist with the U.S. Geological Survey.

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