EPA Awards Three Wisconsin Counties for Innovative Environmental and Public Health Solutions

June 28, 2024 |

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced $97,500 in cash prizes to three Wisconsin counties as winners of its "Small Communities — Big Challenges" Competition. The competition is a partnership between EPA, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, the Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies, the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials, the National Association of County and City Health Officials, and the National Environmental Health Association.

Dunn County Land & Water Conservation Division, Marathon County Conservation Planning and Zoning Department, and Oconto County Public Health shared their innovative and unique strategies for engaging with their rural communities to identify and address important environmental and public health needs. This engagement addresses longstanding needs of rural communities, which often receive less support than more populous, urban communities. Additionally, rural communities experience significantly higher poverty rates across all ethnic and racial groups compared to urban America.

These Wisconsin initiatives highlight the competition's goal of enhancing EPA's understanding of rural communities' environmental challenges while also delivering much-needed resources to local governments. These projects serve as models for addressing critical environmental issues in rural America, emphasizing community engagement and innovative problem-solving.

Dunn County: Groundwater Contamination Study | $35,000 Award

More than half of the population in Dunn County relies on unregulated private wells as their primary source of drinking water. Because 36% of land in the county is used for row crop agriculture, groundwater contamination is a major concern. The financial burdens associated with fixing the problem, including the price of well testing and the cost of treating contaminated water, disproportionally impact low-income individuals. Last year, the Dunn County Board approved ARPA funds to provide free well testing for county residents. 

“Nitrate and arsenic are both odorless and colorless, and due to that invisible nature, most people don’t see contamination as an issue,” explained Heather Wood, Water Resources Specialist for Dunn County Land & Water Conservation Division. “By offering the free tests, which typically cost a homeowner $160, we were able to remove the financial barrier for residents and educate them about the safety of their drinking water.”

Heather Wood, Dunn County, collects a sample from a kitchen tap. 

To promote testing, Dunn County Land & Water Conservation Division partnered with Health Dunn Right to create materials that were shared on social media platforms and physically distributed in more rural villages. Many town clerks aided in the distribution by including informational materials with property tax bills or having the flyers posted and available during the fall and spring elections. Additionally, they mailed postcards to nearly every household within Dunn County. This comprehensive approach yielded impressive results, with nearly 1,000 wells tested over the course of eight weeks.

Wood emphasized the importance of securing funding for such projects. "It's both simple and predictable—finding money is the only way we can do projects like this," she explained. "I wanted to be able to continue sampling, but once the remaining funding for sampling is out, it's out. If we want to be able to continue this work, then we have to find the resources to do so." Wood expressed gratitude for the award, stating, "As for being selected as a winner—I think this is great, and it's going to allow us to continue the work we started last year."

Marathon County: Using the "Marathon Method" to Tackle Elevated Nitrates in Municipal Drinking Water Supplies | $35,000 Award

The Village of Athens in Marathon County has been grappling with a significant environmental challenge: rising levels of nitrates in its municipal drinking water supply. This issue stems from a combination of factors, including shallow groundwater, heavy agricultural land use, and numerous failing or nonexistent septic systems in the area.

To address this pressing concern, the Marathon County Conservation, Planning, and Zoning Department, in partnership with the Marathon County Health Department, Wisconsin Rural Water Association, and the Village of Athens, developed an innovative approach they call "The Marathon Method.”

Marathon County Conservation, Planning, and Zoning Department’s Kirstie Heidenreich, Conservation Program Manager, and Andy Shep, Conservation Technician, explained the core of their strategy. The “Marathon Method” involves working closely with rural landowners and farmers who own and operate land surrounding municipal wells. The team engages in discussions about long-term solutions to change land use practices, aiming to transition from conventional row cropping to more sustainable forms of agriculture, such as the growth of perennial grasses, which would significantly reduce the application of nitrogen-rich nutrients near the wells.

"Our holistic approach of using the 'Marathon Method' is transferrable to all farming communities across the United States where conventional cropping systems that use high levels of commercial fertilizer and manure are prominent," they noted. 

The impact is illustrated in a video that showcases the “Marathon Method” in action, and features the Von Lohs, an Athens family who worked with Marathon County conservation staff. Shep played a crucial role in assisting the family by helping with well water testing and later guiding them through the process of applying for the DNR’s well compensation grant program. This grant enabled the family to purchase a system that filters nitrates out of their water, ensuring clean water from every tap in their house and eliminating the costly need for bottled water. 

Heidenreich and Shep expressed their commitment to expanding their efforts. "We are eager to continue to help the Athens area with this grant money, and other communities in our county. The need is there, and it is very rewarding to work with partners to address these issues."

Oconto County: Radon Testing in the North Woods—What is That? I Could Have That? | $27,500 Award

In the scenic Northwoods, Oconto County faces a hidden threat: elevated radon levels. This colorless, odorless gas, capable of infiltrating home foundations regardless of socioeconomic factors, poses a significant risk to residents, particularly in the county's northern areas where radon concentrations tend to be higher.

Recognizing the urgency of this issue, Oconto County Public Health partnered with a few municipalities in the county including the Towns of Little Suamico, Riverview, Mountain, Townsend, the City of Oconto, Falls and the Village of Suring to distribute tests for radon.

The approach was simple but effective—use town clerks as partners who are trusted members of the community to help get radon home tests out to residents. "In our small communities, everyone knows their town clerk from various activities around town," explained Heather Blum, Oconto County Public Health’s Environmental Health Professional. "This made the town offices a natural and trusted location for distributing the test kits."

To complement this grassroots approach, Oconto Public Health employed a multi-faceted communication strategy. They utilized printed materials, social media, websites, press releases, and local radio and television to promote radon testing and educate the public about its importance. Each test kit also came with an informational sheet explaining how to conduct the test and where to find additional information and resources. 

Recognizing that access and cost could be significant barriers, especially in rural areas, they made sure tests were locally available and offered discounts during certain months. They distributed about 150 tests, a remarkable increase over the average of 37 tests distributed annually in the previous five years. 

Oconto County Public Health was fortunate to add additional municipal partners in Pensaukee, Abrams, Little River, Chase, Brazeau, and Gillett. The new partners, coupled with the 2023 pilot group mentioned above, have distributed over 200 tests so far in 2024, thereby demonstrating the success of the model in filling a need in the county.

 “This prize money will help us fund health and safety initiatives in our county and add new elements to existing programs. We will show some of our projects on our Facebook page over the summer—stay tuned!” added Blum. 

To view the winning submissions or to learn more about the “Small Communities, Big Challenges” Competition, please visit the EPA's website: https://www.epa.gov/innovation/small-communities-big-challenges