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Results are in on Douglas County's water quality

Peter Kruit twisted the cap on a bottle and poured the clear liquid into a cup. He then passed the cup so people could smell the malodorous water drawn from his tap.

"It smells kind of like sulfur," said Lindsey Krumrie, Douglas County environmental health specialist.

Kruit was among dozens of Douglas County residents who took advantage of a program offered by the county to have their private well tested.

The result revealed a high level of manganese for Kruit, which can affect the taste and odor of water, and cause black precipitate in water.

Kruit, who rents his home, said his landlord is working to find a solution.

Manganese is similar to iron in where it occurs, and it dissolves in low-oxygen water, said Kevin Masarik, a groundwater expert with the University of Wisconsin-Extension based at UW-Stevens Point. He said it's found in clay soils near wetland and lakes.

Kruit's is just one of the problems discovered during reduced-cost well testing this year.

Last year, the county sponsored testing 100 wells at a reduced cost for well owners. This year's tests were targeted to gather additional information in trouble areas and areas that hadn't been tested before.

"We did 64 total samples — 61 were private well owners and three were at Amnicon State Park," said Christine Ostern, who served as Douglas County's land conservationist until Tuesday, her last day before taking a job with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.

She said of those samples, there were two that were above the health standard for arsenic, but having any arsenic is a concern, because it's a carcinogen that can have an impact on health long term. She said 14 samples included arsenic, more than was found during the first round of testing.

"We had two that were at or over the health standard for manganese ... which disrupts neurological function," Ostern said. "We had one that was very close to the health standard for copper, and we had four that were over the health standard for lead.

"It's not real good news, but we're working on the map," Ostern said.

But it's not all bad news either, according to Masarik. He said 98 percent of samples submitted in Douglas County tested normal for nitrates, while 10 percent of samples statewide exceed nitrate standards.

"Douglas County groundwater, with respect to land use activities, is substantially better than just about any other part of Wisconsin," Masarik said.

Masarik said Douglas County was about average in terms of coliform bacteria, which doesn't typically make people sick, but is an indicator that other, more harmful bacteria, could be infiltrate a well. Cracks in the casing, loose casings, trees and shrubs, and animals in the vicinity of the well can contribute to contamination. Open, unused wells can also contaminate the groundwater and should be closed. Wells that were found to be contaminated should be corrected and tested again, Masarik said.

Douglas County has money available that could help with the cost of closing wells, said Supervisor Sue Hendrickson, chairwoman of the Land Conservation and Extension committees. She said contact the Zoning Office for more information.

However, geology also influences the quality of groundwater.

Sulfate, iron and manganese are all naturally occurring and can have aesthetic and health implications.

He said there are steps people can take to correct some water problems.

For residents with elevated lead or copper levels, running the water to flush the system before cooking and drinking is a good idea, he said. Residents with high levels of manganese, like Kruit, can use "iron filters" that oxidize the water or reverse osmosis can help with manganese.

Masarik said people should test for bacteria annually, and if water becomes discolored. He said anyone who had detected arsenic should test again in a year to see if there is any change.

"We are planning on offering another round of tests at a discounted rate after the first of the year if we can accumulate enough folks — 30 or so," Hendrickson said.

Anyone interested in having their private well tested at the reduced cost should contact the Land Conservation Department at 715-395-1380.