Nearly one-fourth of local private well samples test positive for nitrate contamination

EAU CLAIRE, Wis. (WEAU)- A county-wide project has found nearly 25 percent of private wells have tested positive for nitrate contamination.

The Eau Claire City-County Health Department is currently looking into what has caused these results.

“The water in Wisconsin, we're blessed with good water,” said KT Gallagher, the regulation and licensing division manager with the department.

The Nitrate Source Investigation Project is nearing the end of its sixth quarter and the health department is looking into why nearly 25 percent of private wells have tested positive for nitrate levels higher than national standards. The department said nitrate can affect your ability to carry oxygen, making it more difficult to breathe.

“It’s very preliminary,” Gallagher said. “We're still trying to understand the association. We recognize that the closer you are to agriculture fields the more likely you’ll have association. Then we continue to do outreach. So if a well had tested high, we're going back out to these well owners for no cost saying we'd like to investigate and understand what, or if, there is an association with agriculture or with human waste.”

Right now 17 percent of the 97 samples have nitrate contamination from agriculture, about 6 percent come from human waste and 3 percent come from both.

“Of the 97 samples we’ve taken, 6 percent of samples have an indicator of human waste, so things like caffeine,” Gallagher added. “All of us enjoy our coffee in the morning, and that is an excrement in our waste.”

UW-Eau Claire student Dexter Zebro has been going out and sampling wells for the last six months.

“We started with big sample size townships,” Zebro said. “So we started with places like Washington, Pleasant Valley, Union, and now since we're toward the end we're trying to get a representation of all townships. So, we’re going toward small sample size areas. We're clustered on west side of Eau Claire County. You can see clusters mainly in the newer subdivisions.”

With nearly 1,200 private wells in the county, Zebro said they'll be sending out more sample request letters this spring, in hopes of getting at least 30 more samples.

“Right now, we’re basically [sampling] the low is Rock Creek watershed,” Zebro said. “We’ll be getting into the other water sheds as we branch out this spring.”

The health department recommends everyone get their well tested annually, or if there's a new baby in the family, as nitrate can affect your ability to carry oxygen.

“It’s pretty significant in young children,” Gallagher added. “Babies that are formula-fed, it impacts the body’s ability to carry oxygen and you know if you don’t get enough oxygen then you have some shortness of breath and it can be very difficult. That’s why it’s called blue baby syndrome.”

You can pick up tests for about $20 dollars at the health department. Gallagher adds, it’s a misconception that you can boil nitrate out of your water, as boiling only makes it more concentrated.

The project is a collaboration between the UW-Eau Claire, the Watershed Institute and the DNR.

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