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Could it happen here?

January 15, 2014 11:52 AM

Hazmat crew member conducts water contamination drill at a Madison well

West Virginia water crisis

Store shelves empty. Families lining up for bottled water. Crowds waiting to fill empty jugs and buckets at tanker trucks. It's a new, painful reality for some 300,000 people living in West Virginia who suddenly find themselves without drinking water. All it took was one chemical spill to contaminate the entire area's treatment plant and water distribution system. The accident quickly became known as the West Virginia water crisis.

"You only realize how precious a resource is when it's not there. We just take it so for granted," says Joe Grande, water quality manager at Madison Water Utility.

The spill has plenty of people wondering if something that catastrophic could happen in Madison.

"Something on that scale? Probably not. It's certainly something that could happen on a smaller scale," Grande admits. "If there was some type of spill at an individual location, it could contaminate a well."

Hazmat and fire crews carry out a contamination drill at a water well on Madison's west side

Protecting our groundwater

Madison has 22 water wells scattered across the city, each providing drinking water for a certain area. The utility has spent more than a decade developing specific plans to protect each well from manmade chemical contamination by working with the city to limit what types of businesses and industries can locate nearby.

"It's probably the most important thing we do," says Grande of the utility's wellhead protection plans. "There are certain things that should not be (near a well) – dry cleaning facilities, gas stations, locations where they're using significant amounts of hazardous wastes..."

There are currently 19 wellhead protection plans in place, and three more are in the works. It's far above the current DNR state code that requires just three. But while the plans will help protect Madison's drinking water from future spills, they can't erase the past.

"There's little that we can do know about past contamination, historic spills," Grande says, pointing out that groundwater protection is a fairly recent priority in Madison. Even as recently as a decade ago, few believed that our aquifer's deepest water could be at risk for contamination.

"A lot of assumptions were made about the aquifer itself and the geology that underlies the city. In the Madison area, we have this upper aquifer, we have this lower aquifer, and we have this shale layer (in between). And I think the assumption was that many of our wells, which are encased down to the lower aquifer, were protected by that shale layer."

But recent research from the Wisconsin Geological Survey and University of Wisconsin show otherwise. The shale layer slows contamination of the lower aquifer, but it doesn't prevent it entirely.

Grande says there's another reason cities across the country were slow to protect their groundwater.

"People just didn't anticipate the impacts of these chemicals. Back in the 50's, 60's, & 70s when some of these chemicals were widely used, I don't think they thought about their disposal. I don't think people thought about what the potential impacts would be on the environment."

A gas station sits next to one of Madison's water wells. The business was built before a wellhead protection program was in place.

Respecting the environment

In some ways, the utility is still playing catch up, especially when it comes to businesses that were already located near wells before the wellhead protection plans were put in place.

"In that regard, we have no authority to tell them that they need to shut down," he says.

Instead, the focus will be on communication.

"We can have some kind of discussion with future owners or current owners that are planning certain activities...What they do on their property is their business, but it's also in the interest in the city that they're doing things in environmentally respectful ways. Because if they're not, it could impact drinking water for the indefinite future – many generations."

Grande says the water contamination crisis in West Virginia should be a wakeup call about the importance of clean water.

"When there's an issue like this, you start to think about, 'How much water is it that I'm using? And what are the things that I use the water for?' We do have a high quality water source that's below our feet, and I think we all should be partners in trying to protect that resource."

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