When the Madison Water Utility flipped the switch last year to turn on its newest well, No. 29 on the far East Side, it had been more than 10 years since the utility had drilled a well to serve the growing city.

But last week, after less than a year of operation, No. 29 was shut down and put on standby, felled by high levels of manganese.

Although the well is desperately needed, utility workers and administrators alike have dubbed No. 29 the "well from hell."

Originally budgeted to cost about $2 million, the well may end up costing the utility $5 million or more if officials follow through with plans to install a filter to take care of the manganese.

The troublesome well is emblematic of the perils facing the utility, from the replacement of aged equipment to pumping clean, reliable sources of water from an aquifer that, though very reliable, is beginning to show the early signs of wear from growing urban pressures.

\ Few protection plans

Despite threats to the aquifer, the utility has protection plans for just three of its 24 wells, utility officials said.

Without those plans, which the utility says cost about $20,000 each to prepare, the city is limited in how it regulates potential polluters near municipal wells.

As the city develops, these wellhead protection plans are becoming more important.

Recently, the U-Pump gas station at the corner of University and Franklin avenues changed hands.

Despite the presence of municipal well No. 6 directly across Franklin Avenue, the city had little leverage in dealing with the new owners who pulled the old buried gas tanks and installed new ones, said Al Larson, principal engineer for the utility.

"We had no legal recourse," Larson said, "because we didn't have a wellhead protection plan in place."

Gas stations and other industrial properties often have chemicals that can leak through the soil and eventually contaminate the groundwater.

In this case, Sid Kabir, the new owner of the station, now called University Gas and Food, was cooperative. He said he replaced the old underground storage tanks at the station with state-of-the art fiberglass tanks and also installed a tank monitoring and leak detection system.

Tom Stunkard, the state Department of Natural Resources water quality engineer who oversees regulation of the Madison Water Utility, said the wellhead protection plans are important because they allow a city to plan with an eye toward protecting its wells and its aquifer.

"It seems like a planning tool Madison is missing out on," Stunkard added.

\ Vast and deep

Madison is blessed with a vast, deep aquifer that's shielded from contaminants by a layer of shale, hydrogeologists say.

But the tremendous growth in southern Wisconsin plus the development of industries, which use harmful chemicals, can threaten the aquifer.

Dane County residents are even changing the water cycle here, said Ken Bradbury, a hydrogeologist with the Wisconsin Geological and Natural History Survey who has extensively studied the city's aquifer.

Studies have shown the water level in the aquifer has dropped nearly 60 feet from historic, predevelopment levels, he said. While it's unlikely that we will ever have to worry about a shortage of water, the heavier use has implications for water quality, according to Bradbury and other hydrogeologists.

It used to be that the Madison lakes were replenished by groundwater. Now that cycle has been reversed with municipal wells near the lakes deriving significant quantities of water -- roughly 25 percent of the water they draw -- from downward leakage from the lakes themselves.

This phenomenon, Bradbury said, means basically that the pollutants we put in the lakes, such as pesticides, are likely to also eventually show up in our drinking water.

"What we do now," Bradbury said, "may come back to haunt us in years or in decades."

\ Pollutants reach aquifer

How we choose to live can have a significant effect on the quality of the water we drink.

Even when pollutants from factories and other sources in the city of Madison have to leach through layers of soil and stone, they eventually reach the aquifer.

Using sophisticated computer models and a technique called backward particle tracking, hydrogeologists have been able to figure the distance from which wells draw water and the amount of time it takes recharge water -- and any pollutants -- to reach wells. Such areas are called "zones of contribution" by hydrogeologists.

Bradbury said one of the most important things to notice about the zones is that for almost all of the county's municipal wells, the groundwater used in Dane County originates within the political boundaries of the county.

Meaning, it's our own pollutants we have to worry about.

\ Difficult problems

Many municipal water utilities are facing tough issues related to growth, Stunkard said.

Looming problems range from aging infrastructure that is going to require major investment and higher water rates to increasing levels of pollutants that make it harder and harder to sink wells. Madison is no different.

The utility's struggle with its newest well, No. 29, shows just how those problems are likely to surface. Well No. 29 was shut down at least temporarily last week because of problems with high levels of manganese, a naturally occurring mineral that discolors water and may cause health problems at high levels.

It's an example of just how difficult it is becoming to adequately serve a growing population, said David Denig-Chakroff, general manager of the utility.

Denig-Chakroff said the utility will be hard-pressed, for example, when it comes time to replace old wells on the Isthmus, such as well No. 3.

On the east side of the Isthmus, well No. 3 has high levels of iron and manganese and also has tested high for chemicals such as carbon tetrachloride.

Because there are generally more industrial pollutants beneath the ground in the Downtown area, finding a clean source of water is likely to be more difficult.

Instead, the utility may be forced to sink wells toward the city's outer boundaries and pipe water Downtown, a costly prospect that will mean more money for more pumps and storage facilities.

"Then you've got a huge problem," Denig-Chakroff said. "We don't have the infrastructure to do that."

\ Prone to pollution

More than most people, Pat McCutcheon has seen how susceptible the water we drink is to contamination.

He's a detective. But he doesn't track criminals, he tracks pollution.

A hydrogeologist with the DNR, McCutcheon is a remediation specialist whose job involves finding and getting rid of pollutants that threaten groundwater in south central Wisconsin, including the city of Madison.

Though the aquifer from which we draw our drinking water is deep and protected, McCutcheon searches for and finds pollutants that show up in Madison's municipal wells, some of which pump water from as deep as 1,130 feet.

He knows from his sleuthing that our drinking water is prone to pollution by chemicals from our factories and dry cleaning stores, gasoline from our service stations, even drugs from our medicine cabinets.

"Our past sins are catching up to us," McCutcheon said.

The price of not protecting the source of our water is high.

"What those pollutants show us," Bradbury said. "is that we have a connection between surface water and our groundwater. It's vulnerable."


Dispose of household chemicals properly -- not down the drain.

Take used motor oil to a recycling center.

Limit the amount of fertilizer used on plants and try organic gardening and natural fertilizers and pesticides.

Take shorter showers.

Shut off water while brushing teeth.

Run full loads of dishes and laundry.

Check for leaky faucets and have them fixed.

Water plants only when necessary.

Keep a pitcher of drinking water in the refrigerator.

Get involved in water education.

Source: American Water Works Association

\ If you live in Madison and have a question about your water, you can contact the Madison Water Utility at 266-4654 or go to the utility's Web site at http://www.madisonwater.org/index.html.

\ To find out what's in your water, visit the state Department of Natural Resources Web site at www.dnr.state.wi.us/org/water/dwg/.

\ About this series

Sunday: What's in our water? Monday: Aging infrastructure affects water quality. Tuesday: Who is watching over our water? Today: How are we protecting our water?

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