News Feature | March 11, 2016

Radium Plagues Wisconsin Wells

Sara Jerome

By Sara Jerome,

The widespread radium problem in Wisconsin is drawing attention to problems with high-capacity wells.

“In 2014, the village of Sussex in southeast Wisconsin made a dismaying discovery. The radioactive element radium, a contaminant that occurs naturally in bedrock throughout the region, had seeped into two of its seven water wells,” the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism recently reported.

“It was not exactly a surprise. Radium has long been a problem in drinking water for dozens of Wisconsin communities from Green Bay to the Illinois border,” the report said.

About 25 water systems in Wisconsin surpassed the maximum level during the last two years, according to the report. That “means radium levels remained over 5 pCi/L for more than a year,” the report said.

What do wells have to do with it?

A major factor “fueling Wisconsin’s radium problem is the lack of regulation of high-capacity wells, which can lead to depletion of groundwater,” the investigative report said.

“Although groundwater levels have rebounded some in the last decade, communities have had to drill deeper wells to tap into an aquifer that researchers say has dropped by nearly 500 feet since the late 1800s. In the process, communities run into more radium because contamination tends to increase the deeper the well is drilled,” the report said, citing Steve Elmore, the state DNR’s public water supply section chief.

Radium is a naturally-occurring radioactive element in rock formations, and it naturally occurs in the state’s groundwater.

“Nearly 70 percent of Wisconsin residents receive drinking water from groundwater resources. Groundwater moves slowly through the pores and cracks in underground layers of unconsolidated material and rock,” the Wisconsin Natural Resources Department reported.

Waukesha is among the cities struggling with a radium problem. It has proposed to stop pumping groundwater and instead use Lake Michigan water.

“If approved, the controversial plan would mark the first test of a provision in a 2008 international compact that allows Great Lakes water diversions only when a county — such as Waukesha County — straddles the basin that feeds water into the Great Lakes,” the report said.

“The Great Lakes-St. Lawrence River Basin Water Resources Council held a public hearing in February on the proposal, which must be ratified by governors from all eight Great Lakes states. The council administers the eight-state compact that governs use of Great Lakes water,” the report continued.

For similar stories, visit Water Online’s Source Water Contamination Solutions Center.