Gov. Tony Evers announced on Tuesday a new $10 million grant program to help people replace, reconstruct, treat or abandon private wells in an effort to improve access to clean drinking water across the state.
The program, which is based on the previously existing Well Compensation Grant Program, is estimated to help address contamination in approximately 1,036 wells, according to a news release. Across Wisconsin there are 800,000 private wells providing the drinking water for about 40% of the state.
“Whether it’s our kids in our schools, families cooking dinner, or our farmers who depend on conservation, every Wisconsinite deserves access to clean, safe water,” Evers said in a statement. “Unfortunately, too many families across our state know firsthand how it feels to turn on the tap and not be able to trust what comes out, and many have had to rely on plastic water bottles for drinking water. So, I am glad to be making this investment today while getting rid of outdated and burdensome requirements that will help ensure more Wisconsinites clean up their wells and keep their families healthy and safe.”
The old program, which has been in place for decades, includes a number of eligibility requirements limiting access to the grant money. In his budget proposal last year, Evers asked the Legislature to add more funding to the program and remove some of the requirements — including increasing the family income limit. The Legislature provided $2 million in funding to the grant program, but did not update the eligibility requirements.
To get around those requirements, Evers created the new program, which eliminates several requirements, including lowering the required threshold for contamination from nitrates, arsenic and bacteria; eliminating the requirement that a nitrate-contaminated well is only eligible for a grant if it’s used as a water supply for livestock; increasing the family income limit from $65,000 to $100,000 and expanding eligible applicants to include owners of non-community wells — such as churches, daycare centers, restaurants or other small businesses.
Contamination of private wells can come from a variety of sources, such as runoff from nearby agricultural operations. Nitrate, which often comes from livestock manure, is the most common contaminant in the state’s groundwater. About 10% of the state’s private wells and 200 public water systems exceed state and federal standards for nitrate, according to the Wisconsin Groundwater Coordinating Council.
Contaminated wells can be dangerous to the health of people and animals who rely on the well for drinking water and force residents to use bottled water instead. Nitrate, for example, is linked to birth defects and can be especially harmful to infants who drink water with excess levels of the chemical.
Environmental groups celebrated Evers’ announcement, while adding that it’s more important for the state to work towards preventing pollution of drinking water in the first place, rather than paying to deal with the after effects.
“We applaud the Governor for taking action to help Wisconsin families when many in the Legislature refused to do so,” Peg Sheaffer, spokesperson for Midwest Environmental Advocates (MEA), said in a statement. “For years, MEA has worked with communities impacted by water pollution to advocate for the most basic of human rights — the right to clean drinking water. While today’s announcement is a significant step in the right direction, the old saying that ‘an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure’ reminds us that preventing pollution at its source is the surest and most cost-effective way to protect public health and the water resources we depend on.”
This story was written by Henry Redman, a staff reporter for the Wisconsin Examiner, where this story first appeared.