At least 60 communities in state don't treat water despite research on dangerDespite science that confirms the dangers, at least 60 communities in Wisconsin don't treat drinking water to protect residents from contaminants such as viruses.
By: By Ron Seely, The Wisconsin State Journal, Superior Telegram
Despite science that confirms the dangers, at least 60 communities in Wisconsin don't treat drinking water to protect residents from contaminants such as viruses.
Among the municipalities are Spring Green in Sauk County, with a population of about 1,500, Fall River in Columbia County with almost 2,400 residents, and Rice Lake in northeastern Wisconsin with about 8,000 residents.
Drinking water officials with the state Department of Natural Resources say that, although a short-lived rule requiring treatment was rescinded by the state Legislature last year, the agency still strongly recommends communities treat drinking water with either chlorine or ultraviolet light to kill contaminants such as bacteria and viruses.
"We are recommending that all communities disinfect their water," said Jill Jonas, director of the DNR's Bureau of Drinking Water and Groundwater. "We can't mandate it. But we are recommending it."
Jonas said most of the municipalities that don't disinfect water supplies are small, rural communities. Larger cities, such as Madison, have treated water for some time.
Lee Boushon, who heads the agency's public water supply section, said communities are, in general, more protected from potential illnesses if drinking water is treated.
"That's our position at this point," Boushon said. "Disinfection is the way to go."
Viruses found in deep aquifers
Disinfection protects not only against bacteria such as E. coli but also against viruses. The presence of viruses in drinking water supplies only recently has been confirmed, largely through the work of Mark Borchardt, a specialist in waterborne illnesses who conducted research at Marshfield Clinic. Borchardt since went to work for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, but a series of groundbreaking papers he authored on viruses in drinking water still are being published.
In that research, Borchardt surprised groundwater experts by finding viruses in deep aquifers from which drinking water is drawn. He also showed the viruses frequently enter water systems through aging and poorly maintained distribution systems.
And in a soon-to-be published study of 14 Wisconsin communities, Borchardt showed a correlation between viruses in groundwater supplies and respiratory and gastrointestinal illnesses among the children and adults he tracked over two years.
That work led to legislation that required all municipalities to disinfect drinking water. But in May, the Republican-controlled state Legislature rescinded the rule. State Rep. Eric Severson, R-Star Prairie, authored the amendment that removed the requirement and argued the DNR requirement was an unnecessary financial and bureaucratic burden on communities with already strong water standards.
While communities are required by law to test for bacteria in water supplies, no tests for viruses are called for.
Even in the absence of required treatment and testing, Chuck Warzecha, director of the Bureau of Environmental and Occupational Health for the state Department of Health Services, said Borchardt's studies should be a powerful motivator when it comes to disinfecting public drinking water supplies.
"It was a surprise to all of us," Warzecha said. "It's cause for concern."
Warzecha said that once Borchardt's research on drinking water viruses and human health is published, it
may prompt some communities to install treatment systems.
'Err on the side of public safety'
Despite the science and the recommendations, Spring Green decided against treatment. Greg Wipperfurth, director of public works, said the cost of treatment and public concern about the smell and taste of chlorine are the major reasons for not disinfecting drinking water.
"The village does not want to treat our water if we don't have to," Wipperfurth said. "I don't think viruses are much of a concern. And I could probably count on one hand how many bad samples I've had here -- and I started here in 1996."
In October, a positive test for the bacteria E. coli in a drinking water sample and subsequent order for residents to boil their water proved alarming enough to officials in Mineral Point that a decision was made to install a chlorine treatment system. Pat O'Flahrity, superintendent of water and sewer, said until the E. coli was detected in October, the city went for years without finding contaminants in its testing.
But, O'Flahrity added, the positive test and the virus research prompted a change in policy.
O'Flahrity said the city decided to install a chlorine treatment system because it is less expensive than using ultraviolet light, which also kills viruses and bacteria. Also, he added, ultraviolet light, which is used to treat water as it comes out of the well, is not as effective as chlorine for treating water in distribution pipes.
The chlorination system cost the city about $15,000, O'Flahrity said.
"If you are going to err, then err on the side of public safety," O'Flahrity said. "This way you know. You've solved the problem. ... You're making sure that the water you are providing is safe."
Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources list of municipalities that treat or don't treat drinking water: http://1.usa.gov/AaWbnp
Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources list of municipalities that treat or don't treat drinking water.
(c)2012 The Wisconsin State Journal (Madison, Wis.)
Visit The Wisconsin State Journal (Madison, Wis.) at www.wisconsinstatejournal.com
Distributed by MCT Information Services