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September 17, 2019

8/16/2019 2:17:00 PM
SWIGG study update provides further clarification, reporting misconstrued in other papers

By Kasi Greenwood
In last week's issue of the Dodgeville Chronicle, the Southwest Wisconsin Groundwater and Geology (SWIGG) provided information that it has entered its second phase of identifying sources of contamination of private wells.
However, reporting from other newspapers have misconstrued results that were provided. Lee Bergquist of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, reported that "results from the independent study released on Thursday showed that 32 of 35 wells - or 91% - contained fecal matter from humans or livestock."
What is not mentioned in Bergquist's reporting is that the 32 of 35 samples listed as contaminated, came from a much larger sample pool of already-contaminated wells.
The SWIGG study is being conducted in order to better understand groundwater quality in private wells located in Grant, Iowa and Lafayette Counties. The study is broken down into three objectives.
The first objective is evaluating private well contamination using indicator bacteria (total coliform and E. Coli) and nitrate through randomized sampling events. The first objective was completed in two sampling events that took place on November 9-10, 2018 and April 12-13, 2019. There were 840 samples tested from randomly selected wells across the tri-county area. Results showed that 42% of sampled wells from November, and 27% from April had evidence of contaminated groundwater.
The second objective, where the study currently is, looks to identify contamination sources in a subset of total coliform and nitrate positive wells, once during each season via microbial tests. These tests will distinguish between human, bovine and swine fecal sources.
In this second objective, there were 35 wells randomly selected April 9-13 that previously tested positive for total coliform bacteria or with nitrate that exceed the drinking water standard rate (10 mg/L).
Further breaking down the fecal origin in the 32 of 35 wells, already showing positive results of contamination, the press release states "there was evidence of both human and livestock fecal contamination of wells, including both cattle and swine manure."
"We weren't looking for rates of contamination this time, we were looking for the sources," Iowa County Conservationist Katie Abbott said. "We already knew they were vulnerable to contamination, now we are looking deeper into where contaminants are coming from."
The SWIGG study press release says directly that "researchers emphasize that the percentage of positive wells from this sampling event is not indicative of a region-wide contamination rate because the sampling focused on wells that had previously shown contamination."
"And this is just one step out of several in this study to figure out what's going on," Abbott said. "There is concern about groundwater, there has been from the beginning. That's why we're doing this study. But there's no crisis here. We're just gathering data and trying to figure out what's going on."
The next round of sampling wells, takes place this month and different wells will be selected. The third objective of the study is to look at the bedrock, the geology, and the well design to determine if there is a correlation between a contaminated well and what surrounds it.
"We're still very early in the process, so there's a lot more analysis to be done," Abbott said.
However, because of the way that Bergquist's article was drafted, it made it sound that only 35 wells were tested and that 91% showed contamination. This version of the press release was picked up by the Associated Press and other large-scale publications. This has caused much frustration for the southwest Wisconsin area.
Assemblyman, and Dodgeville Mayor Todd Novak, sent out a release sharing his frustration with how Milwaukee Journal Sentinel misinterpreted the data. Novak was an editor for the Dodgeville Chronicle for many years.
"As the chair of the Speaker's Task Force on Water Quality and someone who represents the area where this study took place, I share the frustration of all of my constituents who are looking for a solution," Novak said.
He also pointed out that the Chicago Tribune politicized the bipartisan Water Quality Task Force.
"Clean water should be nonpartisan and apolitical, and it is my utmost desire for it to be that way," Novak said. "Unfortunately, this omission has had the effect of a widespread attempt to sow seeds of disillusionment and political polarization. I hope that moving forward, the Journal Sentinel and its affiliated papers shy away from this."
The study was initiated by Iowa, Grant and Lafayette Counties, collaborating with the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), the Wisconsin Geological and Natural History Survey-UW Madison Division of Extension, and the U.S. Geological Survey.
Support also comes from other area organizations including the Lafayette Ag Stewardship Alliance and the Iowa County Uplands Watershed Group.

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