Guardians of Groundwater

By Marie Zhuikov

Wisconsin is one of only three states in the U.S. that coordinates its groundwater research and monitoring through a special council. Since 1984, the Groundwater Coordinating Council (GCC) has fostered the exchange of information about groundwater programs among state agencies and promoted efficiencies to benefit this subterranean resource.

“It’s something that other states might want to think about,” said Jennifer Hauxwell, who helps coordinate research proposal reviews for the GCC and is assistant director for research and student engagement for the University of Wisconsin Water Resources Institute, which is part of the GCC.

“The council has been a great resource and venue for raising groundwater issues and trying to tackle them,” said Steve Elmore, director of the Drinking Water and Groundwater Program for the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR). “When you have broad issues like nitrate and bacterial contamination of groundwater that affects a whole region, you need more than one agency or entity to deal with those sorts of issues.”

According to state statutes, the GCC serves “as a means of increasing the efficiency and facilitating the effective functioning of state agencies in activities related to groundwater management.” The GCC “advises and assists state agencies in the coordination of non-regulatory programs and the exchange of information related to groundwater, including, but not limited to, agency budgets for groundwater programs, groundwater monitoring, data management, public information and education, laboratory analysis and facilities, research activities and the appropriation and allocation of state funds for research.”

Piece of cake, right? To do all these things, the GCC meets quarterly, coordinates an annual competition for groundwater research and monitoring projects, and prepares an annual report to the Legislature.

The state provides funding for groundwater activities, which goes to the University of Wisconsin System to support research and monitoring and is coordinated by the Water Resources Institute. The institute receives additional federal funds through the U.S. Geological Survey to support the work. Projects for funding are selected only after rigorous review by experts from around the world as well as the GCC research and monitoring subcommittee, with advice from the UW System’s Groundwater Research Advisory Council. In addition, other state agencies like the DNR routinely allocate part of their funding toward groundwater projects.

Besides protecting water supplies from contamination, another reason why the GCC was formed in Wisconsin is the importance of groundwater to the people of the state.

“Many people don’t realize where their water comes from,” said Hauxwell. “In Wisconsin, only the coastal communities draw their water from Great Lakes surface water sources. Lake Winnebago is a surface water source as well. Pretty much everyone else relies on groundwater.”

Wisconsin leads the nation in the number of public water systems that rely on groundwater. More than 97 percent of agricultural irrigation water and more than one-third of the water used for commercial and industrial purposes comes from groundwater supplies. Many ecosystems in the state require clean, plentiful groundwater supplies as well.

“Other states have asked Wisconsin a number of times how the GCC works,” said James Hurley, Water Resources Institute director. Currently, only Ohio and Illinois have groundwater coordinating councils. Several national groundwater organizations offer resources for states that don’t have their own councils.

Impacts and Emerging Issues

Findings from the research projects have had significant impacts recently, including the following:

  • A UV light water-purifying system resulting from a research project received a U.S. patent and attracted more than $7 million in investment capital for a Wisconsin-based company.
  • Scientists have refined methods to pinpoint sources of well water contamination. Their efforts reduced the number of contaminated private wells across the state.
  • The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency used findings from research into sources of the contaminant mercury in the environment to formulate rules for how much mercury power plants can emit.
  • The Nuclear Regulatory Commission and the Department of Energy are changing the design of covers and barrier systems for low-level radioactive waste disposal and uranium mine tailings sites across the country based on research findings.
  • State regulators are considering whether to set limits for strontium, which researchers discovered is a natural element in wells in Brown, Calumet, Oconto and Outagamie counties. Strontium can cause rickets and damage tooth enamel in young people.

The GCC has identified several issues for future work, including sand mining, livestock industry expansion, effects of extreme weather and metallic mining (lead, zinc, iron and copper).

Elmore said other contaminants of concern are arsenic, strontium and perfluorinated compounds (historically used in firefighting foam, Teflon and Gortex clothing).

“What a wonderful idea to get all of the state organizations that manage or are affected by groundwater in some way to talk to gather quarterly. People are at the table together to receive updates from researchers, figure out where the priorities and challenges are for the state and how to most efficiently pool resources. I think it’s something that Wisconsin should be very proud of.”