Nelsonville residents finally got the news they’ve been waiting for when the Portage County Board narrowly approved an amendment on November 3 by a vote of 13-11 to use $240,000 in capital funds to install water monitoring wells. as one more step in his ongoing battle to tackle high nitrate levels in the small town of about 150 people, located about 20 minutes east of Stevens Point.
Four days later they learned that Portage County Executive John Pavelski had used his veto power to stop the board’s decision.
Pavelski said in a news release, “Capital improvement projects are designed to fund projects that benefit the county as a whole, for all citizens who are affected and/or have access to what those funds are used for. If we open this Pandora’s box of county funds, we could have other municipalities, areas or groups within the county that also request funds for their projects”.
In 2018, more than half of the private wells in the village tested by the Portage County Public Health Division showed high levels of nitrate contamination. The county Planning and Zoning Department proposed installing water monitoring wells as a way to help determine how deep clean water can be found in Nelsonville, allowing residents to install new private wells with safe water.
“(After the Nov. 3 meeting) I had a sense of hope that I hadn’t felt in a long time,” said Katy Bailey, a resident of Nelsonville. “The sense of hope is gone.”
Every two weeks, Bailey travels about 20 miles to the town of Lind, where he fills seven-gallon jugs of water. This is the water that she and her family use for drinking and cooking. Bailey is one of the town residents with high nitrate levels in her private well, making it unsafe to drink.
“We have been working for so long and fighting so hard for clean water,” said Bailey.
Bailey installed a reverse osmosis system in her home in 2019, but water tests have shown nitrate levels above 10 parts per million on at least two occasions.
“I don’t trust that anymore,” he said. “Our main form of water is bottled water.”
The US Environmental Protection Agency set standards for nitrates at 10 ppm in 1962. Drinking nitrate-laden water has been linked to cancers, miscarriages, thyroid disease, and other health problems. A growing body of scientific research indicates that adverse health effects can occur below that standard.
“It feels like another punch to the gut,” Nelsonville resident Lisa Anderson said of Pavelski’s veto.
She said Pavelski is ignoring the county’s responsibility to fix the water contamination.
“He refuses to see that this is a public health problem. He constantly gets kicked down the road,” Anderson said. “He doesn’t see this as the county’s responsibility. They are mandated to protect the state’s water. It is affecting our quality of life.”
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What happens now?
Pavelski’s veto does not spell a certain end to the monitoring well project. On August 2, the county Land and Water Conservation Committee approved the request for $240,000 from the State and Local Recovery Funds Program, which is federal COVID relief dollars, to install monitoring wells in Nelsonville.
To ensure the installation of the wells, County Board Supervisor Lionel Weaver introduced a budget amendment that would allow capital funds to be used to finance the project if federal aid money was not approved.
Weaver is disappointed in Pavelski’s action and argued that the monitoring well project affects the entire county.
“This is an important first step in the right direction to find a solution to our county’s groundwater problem,” Weaver said. “It is a test case with the potential to benefit our entire county.”
The County Board will try to override Pavelski’s veto at its next meeting on Nov. 15, but to do so it must receive two-thirds approval from supervisors.
If that fails, Weaver hopes the county can still get State and Local Recovery Funds Program dollars for the project. To do so, the project must first receive approval from Portage County Chief Financial Officer Jennifer Jossie, and then must be approved by the County Executive, Finance Committee and County Board. A funding request has been submitted and the awards will be announced in January.
If funding is approved, the county will work with a well driller to install the wells. Sampling will be done quarterly, and Portage County Water Specialist Jen McNelly hopes to have safe water depth information “relatively quickly,” she said.
Portage County Supervisor and Chairman of the Land and Water Conservation Committee David Peterson said he was caught off guard by Pavelski’s veto, but he believes the funds will come.
“Those monitoring wells are going to come in,” Peterson said. “The money is in the Department of Finance. They will come in.”
What else is being done to combat nitrate pollution?
McNelly wrote in an email to the Stevens Point Journal that 20 private wells within Nelsonville have been routinely monitored since 2018. The information collected provides a good baseline, but monitoring wells would help capture a detailed picture of the entire aquifer under the town.
“The monitoring wells will extend throughout the aquifer. This will allow us to monitor water quality at multiple depths,” McNelly wrote. “We also want to be able to assess the impacts of changes in land use and management on water quality. If there are practices that have an impact on water quality, we can use them to make better recommendations to landowners throughout the county.”
according to a 2022 report to the state legislature, Portage County ranks seventh overall with an estimated 17.7% of wells with a nitrate standard of more than 10 ppm. Rock County ranks highest with 24.4% of wells greater than 10 ppm.
McNelly wrote that other Portage County communities, including Almond, Buena Vista, Pine Grove and Plover, have nitrate contamination that exceeds the drinking water standard in more than 40% of their sampled private wells.
In July, the Stevens Point Journal reported that the county allocated $2.3 million for the Portage County WATER program to provide testing and treatment for county residents who use a private well for drinking water and privately owned rural wells that serve the public in places like camps. .
“We have had 152 private wells registered for water testing. We have had 10 private wells submit pre-application materials for rebate and two of them have submitted rebate paperwork meaning they have installed reverse osmosis systems,” McNelly wrote. “Because there is a delay in getting the water tested and getting the results back, we are now reaching out to those who took the test in September and qualify for the program.”
So far, about $9,200 has been spent on water testing services. The program is set to run until 2024. To apply for this program, visit the water resources page in the Planning and Zoning department on the Portage County website.
Another boost for private well owners came in September when state Rep. Katrina Shankland, D-Stevens Point, who represents Wisconsin’s 71st Assembly District, announced the expansion of the Department of Natural Resources’ eligibility requirements for compensation and well abandonment grant programs. The programs are funded by $10 million from the American Bailout Act.
These programs provide financial assistance to public, private, or non-community well owners to address contamination in their wells by awarding grants of up to $16,000 for the replacement, reconstruction, treatment, or abandonment of their well.
The income eligibility requirement has increased from $65,000 to $100,000 per household. The nitrate level requirement was lowered from 40 ppm to 10 ppm, and owners of wells with nitrate contamination are no longer required to have livestock using the water.
DNR grant program manager Sandy Chancellor wrote in an email that five Wisconsin residents received money from the program, including a Portage County resident who received $15,686 to drill a new well. Another county resident received about $800 for well abandonment.
To see if you qualify for funding, visit the financial assistant page on the DNR website.
Contact USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin reporter Jennifer Poyer at email@example.com.
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